The ostrich, Struthio camelus, is a large flightless bird native to Africa. It is the only living species of its family, Struthionidae and its genus, Struthio. Ostriches share the order Struthioniformes with the kiwis, emus, and other ratites. It is distinctive in its appearance, with a long neck and legs and the ability to run at maximum speeds of about 70 km/h (45 mph), the top land speed of any bird or indeed any two legged creature on earth. The ostrich is the largest living species of bird and lays the largest egg of any living bird, although the extinct elephant birds of Madagascar and giant moa of New Zealand laid larger eggs.
The diet of the ostrich mainly consists of plant matter, though it also eats insects. It lives in nomadic groups which contain between five and fifty birds. When threatened, the ostrich will either hide itself by lying flat against the ground, or will run away. If cornered, it can attack with a kick from its powerful legs. Mating patterns differ by geographical region, but territorial males fight for a harem of two to seven females.
The ostrich is farmed around the world, particularly for its feathers, which are decorative and are also used as feather dusters. Its skin is used for leather products and its meat marketed commercially.
Ostriches usually weigh from 63 to 130 kilograms (140–290 lb), with exceptional male ostriches weighing up to 155 kilograms (340 lb). The feathers of adult males are mostly black, with white primaries and a white tail. However, the tail of one subspecies is buff. Females and young males are greyish-brown and white. The head and neck of both male and female ostriches is nearly bare, with a thin layer of down. The skin of the females neck and thighs is pinkish gray, while the male's is blue or gray dependent on the subspecies.
The long neck and legs keeps their head 1.8 to 2.75 metres (6 to 9 ft) above the ground, and their eyes are said to be the largest of any land vertebrate – 50 millimetres (2.0 in) in diameter; they can therefore perceive predators at a great distance. The eyes are shaded from sun light falling from above.
Their skin is variably coloured depending on the sub-species. The male tarsus has red horn plates, while the female's are black. The strong legs of the ostrich, like those of other birds, are scaled and unfeathered. The bird has just two toes on each foot (most birds have four), with the nail on the larger, inner toe resembling a hoof. The outer toe lacks a nail. The reduced number of toes is an adaptation that appears to aid in running. The wings reach a span of about 2 metres (6 ft 7 in)] and are used in mating displays and to shade chicks. The feathers lack the tiny hooks that lock together the smooth external feathers of flying birds, and so are soft and fluffy and serve as insulation. They have 50-60 tail feathers, and their wings have 16 primary, four alular and 20-23 secondary feathers
Ostriches have three stomachs, and the caecum is 28 inches (71 cm) long. Unlike all other living birds, the ostrich secretes urine separately from feces and also have a urinary bladder. They also have unique pubic bones that are fused to hold their gut. Unlike most birds the males have a copulatory organ, which is retractable and 8 inches (20 cm) long. Their palate is different than other ratites, in that the sphenoid and palatal bones are unconnected.
At sexual maturity (two to four years), male ostriches can be from 1.8 to 2.8 metres (5 ft 11 in to 9 ft 2 in) in height, while female ostriches range from 1.7 to 2 metres (5 ft 7 in to 6 ft 7 in). During the first year of life, chicks grow about 25 centimetres (10 in) per month. At one year of age, ostriches weigh around 45 kilograms (100 lb). Their lifespan is up to 40–45 years.
A female ostrich can determine her own eggs amongst others in a communal nest.
The ostrich was originally described by Linnaeus in his 18th-century work, Systema Naturae under its current binomial name. Its scientific name is derived from Latin, struthio meaning "ostrich" and camelus meaning "camel", alluding to its dry habitat.
The ostrich belongs to the Struthioniformes order of ratites. Other members include rheas, emu, cassowaries, and the largest bird ever, the now-extinct Elephant Bird (Aepyornis). However, the classification of the ratites as a single order has always been questioned, with the alternative classification restricting the Struthioniformes to the ostrich lineage and elevating the other groups.
Five subspecies are recognized:
• S. c. australis in Southern Africa, called the Southern Ostrich. It is found south of the Zambezi and Cunene rivers. It was once farmed for its feathers in the Little Karoo area of Cape Province.
• S. c. camelus in North Africa, sometimes called the North African Ostrich or Red-necked Ostrich. It is the most widespread subspecies, ranging from Ethiopia and Sudan in the east throughout the Sahel and the Sudan to Senegal and Mauritania in the west, and at least in earlier times north to Egypt and southern Morocco, respectively. It is the largest subspecies, at 2.74 m (9 ft) 154 kilograms (340 lb). The neck is red, the plumage of males is black and white, and the plumage of females is grey.
• S. c. massaicus in East Africa, sometimes called the Masai Ostrich. It has some small feathers on its head, and its neck and thighs are bright orange. During the mating season, the male's neck and thighs become brighter. Their range is essentially limited to southern Kenya and eastern Tanzania and Ethiopia and parts of Southern Somalia.
• S. c. syriacus in the Middle East, sometimes called the Arabian Ostrich or Middle Eastern Ostrich, was a subspecies formerly very common in the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, and Iraq; it became extinct around 1966.
• S. c. molybdophanes in southern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya, and Somalia, is called the Somali Ostrich. The neck and thighs are grey-blue, and during the mating season, the male's neck and thighs become bright blue. The females are more brown than those of other subspecies. It generally lives in pairs or alone, rather than in flocks. Its range overlaps with S. c. massaicus in northeastern Kenya.
Ostriches formerly occupied Africa north and south of the Sahara, East Africa, Africa south of the rain forest belt, and much of Asia Minor. Today ostriches prefer open land and are native to the savannas and Sahel of Africa, both north and south of the equatorial forest zone. In Southwest Africa they inhabit the semi-desert or true desert. They rarely go above 100 metres (330 ft). The Arabian Ostriches in the Near and Middle East were hunted to extinction by the middle of the 20th century.
Ostriches normally spend the winter months in pairs or alone. Only 16 percent of ostrich sightings were of more than two birds. During breeding season and sometimes during extreme rainless periods, ostriches live in nomadic groups of five to 50 birds (led by a top hen) that often travel together with other grazing animals, such as zebras or antelopes. Ostriches are diurnal, but may be active on moonlit nights. They are most active early and late in the day. The male ostrich territory is between 2 and 20 km2 (0.77 and 7.7 sq mi).
With their acute eyesight and hearing, ostriches can sense predators such as lions from far away. When being pursued by a predator, they have been known to reach speeds in excess of 70 km/h (45 mph), and can maintain a steady speed of 50 km/h (30 mph), which makes the ostrich the world's fastest two-legged animal. When lying down and hiding from predators, the birds lay their heads and necks flat on the ground, making them appear as a mound of earth from a distance. This even works for the males, as they hold their wings and tail low so that the heat haze of the hot, dry air that often occurs in their habitat aids in making them appear as a nondescript dark lump.
When threatened, ostriches run away, but they can cause serious injury and death with kicks from their powerful legs. Their legs can only kick forward. Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not bury their heads in sand. This myth likely began with Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), who wrote that Ostriches "imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed."
They mainly feed on seeds, shrubs, grass, fruit and flowers; occasionally they also eat insects such as locusts. Lacking teeth, they swallow pebbles that act as gastroliths to grind food in the gizzard. An adult ostrich carries about 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of stones in its stomach. When eating, they will fill their gullet with food, which is in turn passed down their esophagus in the form of a ball called a bolus. The bolus may be as much as 210 ml (7.1 US fl oz). After passing through the neck (there is no crop) the food enters the gizzard and is worked on by the aforementioned pebbles. The gizzard can hold as much as 1,300 g (46 oz). Ostriches can go without drinking for several days, using metabolic water and moisture in ingested plants, but they enjoy liquid water and frequently take baths where it is available.
Ostriches can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. In much of their habitat, temperatures vary as much as 40 °C (104 °F) between night and day. Their temperature control mechanism relies on action by the bird, which uses its wings to cover the naked skin of the upper legs and flanks to conserve heat, or leaves these areas bare to release heat.
Ostriches become sexually mature when they are 2 to 4 years old; females mature about six months earlier than males. The species is iteroparous, with the mating season beginning in March or April and ending sometime before September. The mating process differs in different geographical regions. Territorial males typically hiss and use other sounds to claim victory over a harem of two to seven hens. The successful male will then be allowed to breed with all the females in an area, but will only form a pair bond with the dominant female.
The cock performs with his wings, alternating wing beats, until he attracts a mate. They will go to the mating area and he will maintain privacy by driving away all intruders. They graze until their behaviour is synchronized, then the feeding becomes secondary and the process takes on a ritualistic appearance. The cock will then excitedly flap alternate wings again, and start poking on the ground with his bill. He will then violently flap his wings to symbolically clear out a nest in the dirt. Then, while the hen runs circle around him with lowered wings, he will wind his head in a spiral motion. She will drop to the ground and he will mount for copulation.
Ostriches are oviparous. The females will lay their fertilized eggs in a single communal nest, a simple pit, 30 to 60 centimetres (12–24 in) deep and 3 metres (9.8 ft) wide, scraped in the ground by the male. The dominant female lays her eggs first, and when it is time to cover them for incubation she discards extra eggs from the weaker females, leaving about 20 in most cases.
Ostrich eggs are the largest of all eggs (and by extension, the yolk is the largest single cell), though they are actually the smallest eggs relative to the size of the adult bird. – on average they are 15 centimetres (5.9 in) long, 13 centimetres (5.1 in) wide, and weigh 1.4 kilograms (3.1 lb), over 20 times the weight of a chicken egg. They are glossy cream-coloured, with thick shells marked by small pits. The eggs are incubated by the females by day and by the males by night. This uses the colouration of the two sexes to escape detection of the nest, as the drab female blends in with the sand, while the black male is nearly undetectable in the night. The incubation period is 35 to 45 days.
Typically, the male defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, although males and females cooperate in rearing chicks. The survival rate is low for the hatchlings, with an average of one per nest surviving to adulthood. Predators include hyenas, jackals, various birds of prey, and vultures.
Ostriches reared entirely by humans may not direct their courtship behaviour at other ostriches, but toward their human keepers.
Hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari use ostrich eggshells as water containers in which they puncture a hole to enable them to be used as canteens.
Ostriches have inspired cultures and civilizations for 5,000 years in Mesopotamia and Egypt. A statue of Arsinoe II of Egypt riding an ostrich was found in a tomb in Egypt. The Kalahari still use their eggs as water jugs.
In Roman times, there was a demand for Ostriches to use in venatio games or cooking. They have been hunted and farmed for their feathers, which at various times have been popular for ornamentation in fashionable clothing (such as hats during the 19th century). Their skins are valued for their leather. In the 18th century they were almost hunted to extinction; farming for feathers began in the 19th century. The market for feathers collapsed after World War I, but commercial farming for feathers and later for skins became widespread during the 1970s.
It is claimed that ostriches produce the strongest commercial leather. Ostrich meat tastes similar to lean beef and is low in fat and cholesterol, as well as high in calcium, protein and iron.] Uncooked, it is dark red or cherry red, a little darker than beef.
In some countries, people race each other on the back of ostriches. The practice is common in Africa and is relatively unusual elsewhere. The ostriches are ridden in the same way as horses with special saddles, reins, and bits. However, they are harder to manage than horses.
The racing is also a part of modern South African culture. Within the United States, a tourist attraction in Jacksonville, Florida called 'The Ostrich Farm' opened up in 1892; it and its races became one of the most famous early attractions in the history of Florida. In the U.S. today, the Phoenix, Arizona area hosts an annual 'Ostrich Festival' every Spring in which residents race. Racing has also occurred at many other locations such as Virginia City in Nevada, Canterbury Park in Minnesota, Prairie Meadows in Iowa, and Ellis Park in Kentucky.
The wild ostrich population has declined drastically in the last 200 years, with most surviving birds in game parks or on farms; however, they have a conservation status of Least Concern, with an occurrence range of 12,000,000 km2 (4,600,000 sq mi).
Beanie, my guide around Sossusvlei, gives us some solid advice on what to do if attacked by an ostrich. The ostrich will want to claw out your stomach, so lie on your belly and wrap your hands around the back of your neck.