George Stimpson

His life and works

Home > Information Roundup > Was the roc a real bird?
Was the roc a real bird?

The roc, or rukh as it is spelled in Arabic and Persian, existed only in fable. It was conceived to be a monstrous white predatory bird of such great size and strength that it could fly away with a ship in its beak. In Persia the same mythical bird is often referred to as the simurg. Most of our knowledge of the roc is derived from the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, although the legend of this bird was known in Europe before these stories were translated into Western languages. According to Sir Richard Burton's translation, Sindbad the Sailor, sitting in a tree on an island where he was shipwrecked, saw some great white thing afar off in the interior of the island. Upon inspection he found it to be a huge white dome rising high in the air and of vast compass. Walking around it he could find no entrance, nor could he make any impression on the wall because of its smoothness and slipperiness. The sailor then marked the spot where he stood and went around the dome again to measure its circumference, which he found to be fifty good paces. As he stood there wondering how he might enter, suddenly the sun was hidden from him and the air became dull and dark. It seemed as if a cloud had come over the sun, but looking at the sky more carefully Sindbad saw that what at first appeared to be a cloud was in fact a bird of gigantic girth and inordinately wide of wing, which, as it flew through the air, veiled the [page 29] sun and hid it from the island. Then he recalled the story of the roc and realized that the dome was a roc's egg. As he looked and marveled the bird alighted over the egg, spread out its wings with its legs stretching out behind, and in that posture fell asleep. Sindbad, desiring to be carried from that desert island to a land of cities and inhabitants, twisted his turban into a rope and bound his waist fast to the legs of the roc. The next morning the bird flew away, carrying him to a dizzy height, and finally alighted on a high hill, never taking the least heed of the seaman. After he had cut himself loose Sindbad found that he was in the land of diamonds. Arabian writers tell us that the roc regularly fed its young on elephants, and an old Persian print represents one of the birds carrying three elephants in its beak and talons. Early writers were of the opinion that the original home of the roc was in Madagascar, and the root of the myth may be found in that island. It is related that an Arab living in western Africa was shipwrecked on a large island in the Indian sea, presumably Madagascar, and when he returned to civilization he brought back reports of a marvelous bird that he had seen. He had with him an enormous quill from the wing feather of a roc not yet hatched, and he reported that the eggs of this bird held a goatskin of yolk. Marco Polo, writing about 1300, also located the roc in the same island and related that he had heard that the Great Khan of Tartary had sent agents to Madagascar to investigate the wonderful stories told of the roc. When they returned they presented his majesty "a feather of the roc, positively alarmed to have measured ninety spans, and the quill part to have been two palms in circumference." The people of Madagascar told Marco Polo that the roc, said to resemble an eagle but incomparably greater in size, made its appearance from the southern region at a certain season of the year. This bird was large and strong enough to seize an elephant in its talons, lift it into the air and drop it to the ground in order to kill it, so the bird could feast on the carcass. "Persons who have seen this bird," wrote the Venetian traveler, "assert that when the wings are spread they measure sixteen paces in extent, from point to point; and that the feathers are eight paces in length, and thick in proportion." These undoubtedly are vague and inaccurate references to the Aepyornis or elephant bird of Madagascar, which became extinct two or three centuries ago. The largest of these ostrich-like birds, standing ten feet in height, laid eggs that were as large as medium-sized pumpkins and contained between two and three gallons of liquid. One of these giant eggs preserved in the British Museum has a capacity of about two and a third gallons. Of course the elephant [page 30] bird was flightless and not predatory and therefore not a true counterpart of the roc in nature, but its great size would be all that was necessary to set the imagination of Oriental writers on fire. Roc's egg, like mare's nest, means some prodigious or marvelous thing existing only in the imagination. The moas, which became extinct in New Zealand about the time Captain James Cook visited those islands in 1769, are the largest real birds known to science. Some of these ostrich-like birds are known to have stood twelve feet high and a few of the tallest may have reached a height of sixteen feet. Ostriches, largest living birds, seldom attain a height greater than eight feet. The eggs of the moa were larger even than those of the elephant birds of Madagascar. Numerous moa skeletons have been found. The bones representing the skeletons of hundreds of these giant birds have been unearthed in upland swamps near Oamaru on the South Island of New Zealand. It has been suggested that these "moa cemeteries" were formed when the birds came to drink from hill lagoons and broke through the crust of the swamps. Silt and heavy deposits of blue clay have preserved their bones for centuries. The remains of few moa eggs have survived, a fact that has suggested the theory that these birds may have become extinct as the result of the cannibalistic habit of eating their own eggs when there was a shortage in the supply of their natural food. The largest known bird of prey was the now extinct Harpagornis, also a native of New Zealand. Larger than any existing species of eagle, it was probably able to kill a moa, but not to carry it off.