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Patagonia Bookshelf

Ostrich Tales — an Anthology
Observations of Darwin's rhea in southern Patagonia

New York Sun (newspaper), 6 September 1885, unsigned;
also printed (in abbreviated form) in
The Otago Witness (New Zealand), 19 December 1885
The writer visits a curio shop in Punta Arenas run by a veteran of the U.S. Navy. Among the objects offered for sale, he is most interested in ostrich plumes, and rugs made of the feathers of young ostriches. He describes how the feathers are obtained, giving reference prices, but expresses concern for the long-term sustainability of the trade.

[emphasis added]

Stopping in Patagonia -- The Southernmost Settlement of the Globe

Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Jun 18.

There is a curiosity shop near the landing kept by an old fellow who was once a sailor in the United States Navy and fought under Admiral Farragut at Mobile - at least he says he did, and he speaks like a truthful man. Here are to be purchased many interesting relics, and passengers who are fortunate enough to get ashore go back to their ship loaded down with Indian trifles, shells and flying fish, tusks of sea lions, serpent skins, agates from Cape Horn, turtle shells, and the curious tails of the armadillo, in which the Indians carry their war paint. But the prettiest things to be bought at Punta Arenas are the ostrich rugs, made of the breasts of the young birds, as soft as down and as beautiful as plumage can be. The plumes of the ostrich are plucked from the wings and tail while the bird is alive, but to make a rug the little ones are killed and skinned and the soft fluffy breasts are sewed together until they reach the size of a blanket. Those of brown and those of the purest white are alternated, and the combination produces a very fine artistic effect. They are too dainty and beautiful to be spread upon the floor, but can be used as carriage robes, or to throw over the back of a couch or chair. Sometimes ladies use them as panels for the front of dress skirts, and thus they are more striking than any fabric a loom can produce. Opera cloaks have been made of them also, to the gratification of the aesthetic. They are too rare to be common and too beautiful to ever tire the eye.

Guanaco skins are carried away from Punta Arenas also, and are considered very fine. These are the wearing apparel of the Indians, and with the ostrich rugs the chief results of their chase. In Patagonia ostriches are not bred as at the Cape of Good Hope, but run wild, and are rapidly getting exterminated. The Indians chase them on horseback, and catch them with bolas, two heavy balls upon the end of a rope. Grasping one ball in the hand they gallop after the ostrich, and whirling the other ball around their heads like a coil of lasso, they let go when near enough to the bird, and the two balls, still revolving in the air, if skillfully directed will wind around the long legs of the ostrich and send him turning somersaults upon the sand. The Indians then leap from the saddle, and if they are out of meat, cut the throat of the bird and carry the carcass to camp; but if they have no need of food, they pull the long plumes from his tail and wings, and let him go again to gather fresh plumage for the next season.

Large amounts of money have been made on ostrich farms in Africa, and they might, perhaps, be duplicated in this locality; bit as long as the Indians are allowed to kill the birds and sell the results of a week's chase for a few drinks of rum, the business would not be profitable. The ostriches are becoming scarcer every year, as the improvident Indians slaughter them without reason, and the pampas will soon become as barren of their greatest source of revenue as the plains of our great West are of buffaloes today. At any of the trading posts in Punta Arenas you can buy for $8 or $10 a rug that represents the breasts of twelve or fifteen young ostriches, and even that low price gives the trader a profit of many hundred per cent, as a few drinks of whiskey makes the Indian susceptible to persuasion. If the Government of Chili were to sell the monopoly of trading in ostrich skins and feathers to a few fair-minded men, the birds would multiply enormously, and the beauty of their plumage be very much increased. The best plumes are worth $40 or $50 a pound in the market, and are much improved by the proper care of the bird. Those that run wild have their feathers torn by bushes and ruined by mud, and the better the quality of food they receive the better the plumes they produce. Ostriches usually live to be twenty or more years old, if they do not fall a prey to hunters or pumas (Patagonian lions), and after they have reached the age of four or five years they can be made to produce a couple of pounds of plumes annually. The American ostrich is said to be not so good as that of Africa, but experts say that is only because the latter has been cultivated, while the former has been permitted to run wild, eating such food as he can pick up on the pampas, preyed upon by pumas and wolves [not found in Patagonia, Ed.], and tearing his coat to tatters by plunging through the brush.

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