End of 25th Entry: One of Mick’s first places of work was the helping to round up some six hundred ostriches which during the winter months had been turned into bush country away from cultivation.
A number of neighbours rode over to the Van Der Walts for the roundup and after an early breakfast, some fifty horsemen and a score of coloured men moved out past the cultivated lands and into the 4000-acre paddock in which the ostriches were running. At the end of the enclosure, the beaters spread out fanwise and began to drive everything before them in the direction of the roadway leading to the Van der Walts.
At first, all went smoothly – the great birds feeding in groups raised their long snake-like necks began to run in single file away from the oncoming humans. Line upon line went flying through the bush taking immense strides, their wings extended making a weird prehistoric type of picture.
Often as their bodies were hidden by scrub it seemed as though a cluster of great snakes were moving amongst the bush. Out they broke, companies of long-legged grey or black monstrous birds, yellow tailed, their wings soft masses of white. As they ran now and again a bird would break from the line and with tremendous velocity speed past his companions swaying and staggering with the impetus of his race.
Soon the flocks began to join and the country before the beaters became a living forest of twisting wriggling serpents rising above a grey-black mass broken by shimmering patches of white.
Now began the fun – the ostriches became frightened started to try and break through the line – traveling with the speed of an express train, swerving half round without slackening a fraction of pace the great birds strove to get out of the fast-closing half circle. To turn them meant horsemanship of the polo field type and soon the country was alive with galloping, twisting horses, and half flying, half running birds.
Mick’s first fall from a horse came whilst racing down a steep hillside to turn a cock ostrich which was charging through. The horse was an old hand at the game, Mick wasn’t. As horse and rider dashed almost on the running bird the latter swerved sharply so did Mick’s mount, Mick carried straight on and amidst a thunder of cheers turned a complete somersault in the air and landed hard on his posterior.
Soon afterward the column of ostriches was shepherded through the gate and driven down a road between two strong fences until they reached a large lucerne paddock into which they were driven.
The first Plucking Day was another great experience for Mick. Some two hundred birds were driven into a corral with strong high walls of packed stone. Here the foreman armed with a long-handled crook and a couple of pillowslips selected his quarry. Quickly running into the flock he would slip the crook around the bird’s neck, the ostrich instantly attempted to pull backhauling hard the foreman drew the head to him and slipping on a pillowcase released the biped simultaneously with the hooking two men had run in behind the bird, one on each side – grasping the junctions of wing and body with their right hands they joined their left hands beneath the tail and as the foreman released the neck shoved the blindfolded ostrich towards a V shape pen. Once inside pressed firmly against the apex a rawhide thong was passed behind the thighs and secured.
This done the pluckers got to work the yellow tail feathers, two rows of black or grey wing feathers, black in the case of the cock, grey in the hen’s, were plucked, the quills fully ripe coming away easily without the bird feeling even a twinge of pain.
The valuable whites of the wing were clipped with a pair of powerfully sprung shears, the greatest care being taken to prevent cutting into living tissue. As Mathew explained to Mick the long white feathers would ripen exactly as the tails, blacks, and whites had. However, by the time, the quills had ripened into their sockets the floss of the feather would have greatly deteriorated.
To secure the feathers in their most valuable period they were clipped two months before the butts were fully ripe – the clipping is done just above the still drying portion of the quill. Two months later these butts now dry into the sockets would be easily pulled out with two fingers.
Several birds were quilled during the plucking of the flock, birds which had been bought a month or two previously after they had been plucked. Quite a number required branding this being done with a small branding iron made red hot and pressed for three seconds against the thigh. This was the only painful process to which the birds were subjected.
Once plucked, quilled or branded the thong was loosened behind, the bird pulled back out of the pen and the pillowcase hauled off. A dazed look around the ostrich hurried back to his companions and another took his place.