The Marvelous Ostrich

What makes Ostriches so fascinating? Is it because they’re the largest birds on earth?  Is it because they seem so fearless? Is it because humans, since the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians have used ostrich feathers to adorn themselves?   

Impressive Statistics (lots)

Ostriches really are huge, growing up to 8 feet tall and weighing up to 290 pounds!  In fact, it seems everything about Ostriches is oversized – their feet (with only two toes, but with one huge talon on each foot), their eyes – 2 inches in diameter, and their nests, which can accommodate up to 60 jumbo eggs. Those eggs are six inches long and weigh 3 pounds each, and ostrich chicks hatch at about the size of full-grown barnyard chickens.

Then there are those outsized abilities – first, they are FAST.   Ostriches can sprint at speeds of up to 43 miles per hour.   By way of comparison, Usain Bolt, the amazing Jamaican sprinter, set speed records and won Olympic gold medals by running at almost 28 miles per hour for 100 meters.     And the ostriches have another advantage – their long, muscular legs allow them to cover from 10 – 16 feet in a single stride.    Take a look at this – no wonder ostriches are called the fastest creatures on two legs!  

Instant Growth Spurt

Also, even ostrich chicks could beat Mr. Bolt just one month after they hatch – the little tots have been clocked sprinting at 35 mph.   They grow approximately 1 foot per month, and many are nearly full grown, though they don’t yet have their marvelous adult plumage, by the age of six months.  Even though the chicks may be large, they still need to be protected from predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, and dog packs.  Their parents, especially the males, use their wings to threaten and distract the predators while the females sprint away with the young.   An angry male ostrich will roar, hiss, and kick a predator, and if the formidable talon makes contact, even a large animal like a lion can be deterred from attacking, or even killed by an ostrich. 

A fairly simple desert life

Ostriches live 30- 40 years in the wild, pretty amazing since they drink very little water and live out in the open in savannas and deserts.  On the other hand, they are formidable in size and abilities, and they’re also omnivores.   They prefer seeds, roots, and leaves, but they’re entirely opportunistic diners, eating locusts, rodents, lizards, snakes – and, oh yes, sand and pebbles to aid in digestion.   Though they will drink when they find a water source, they can go a long time without a sip, since they’re well equipped to extract water from their food.   They have three stomachs to aid in digestion as well, which allows them to extract every bit of nutrition from every bite they consume (well, not the dirt and pebbles).  Though there’s no relation, Ostriches have been compared to camels, probably because of their long necks, jerky gait, and protuberant eyes shaded by long eyelashes; in fact, their scientific name is Struthio camelus.  

Popular feathers

Their plumage is quite important  to these flightless birds – they use their wings  for courtship displays, as a sort of rudder when  running, and, when there are young around, as umbrellas to keep the little ones dry when it rains and shaded when the sun is relentless.  Adult males sport natty black and white feathers, while females have brownish-gray plumage.      And their distinctive especially soft feathers at one time threatened their survival in the wild.   In fact, though ostrich now live in sub-Saharan Africa, and are not considered threatened by the IUCN, they once also lived in the Arabian peninsula and southwestern Asia, where they were hunted to extinction for those prestigious feathers, for their hides, and for meat.

In the late 18th Century, ostrich feathers became all the rage in Europe for women’s hats (as opposed to earlier times, where these feathers decorated the robes of royalty and the helmets of knights), and the species became seriously endangered in the wilds of Africa.   By the mid-19th Century, though,  business people figured out that the trade of ostrich products was quite lucrative, and it wouldn’t exist if the birds disappeared, so they began to domesticate and farm ostriches,  relieving some pressure on wild populations.    

There is still some demand for ostrich feathers, mostly for dusters, ostrich meat, and ostrich eggs – but at least today these demands are being met without killing ostrich in the wild.  But it’s undeniable that the ostriches’ natural habitats are being threatened by human settlements, roads, and agriculture, and populations are decreasing.

At the Reid Park Zoo

If you’d like to see Eiffel and Ethel, the male and female ostriches at the Reid Park Zoo, you’ll need to head for the zebra habitat.     In the wild, ostriches often graze with other species like zebras and antelope, and sort of like giraffes, the ostriches’ long necks and keen eyesight equip them to alert everyone, not just other ostriches, to the approach of predators.   

But now it’s time to dispel that silly “burying their heads in the sand” myth.   Ostriches certainly do NOT do this, though they will flatten themselves and stretch out their necks and heads flat on the ground in order to become less visible if a distant predator is on the prowl for them!  Luckily for the ostrich, the coloration on their necks and heads is very similar to the color of the soils in which they forage.

But back to Eiffel (the black and white one) and Ethel, our marvelous Reid Park Zoo ostriches.     They seem unconcerned about their zebra habitat mates, and also particularly interested in the humans who come to admire both species.  Eiffel weighs about 290 pounds, and Ethel is a dainty 220, and both are fairly youthful , 21 and 8 years old, respectively.     Eiffel has been doing a lot of “dancing” lately, while Ethel, who seems unimpressed, likes to stand under the misters to cool off, or if it’s a little cooler, mesmerize us humans with a dramatic dust bath.     One or both of them will probably come to look you straight in the eye, from a safe distance of course, when you come to visit.  

But don’t forget about the Reid Park Zoo expansion   Though you really don’t want to have a close encounter with either Eiffel or Ethel,  in the expansion’s Wings of Wonder aviary, you’ll actually have the chance to feed some of their amazing but much smaller relatives!