THURSDAY: The Ostrich – the Biggest and the Fastest

20 March 2014

Australia has its emu, and America has its rhea. You only have to look at an emu or rhea to recognize these large birds as the cousins of the familiar ostrich.  And Africa’s ostrich is the biggest and the fastest.

[Ostrich image]

The common ostrich is the biggest bird on earth growing as tall as 9 feet and weighing up to 240 pounds.  Faster than either of its cousins, ostriches have been clocked at 43 mph.  At that speed, the ostrich isn’t just the fastest bird on earth; it’s the fastest of any land animal on the planet.  Perhaps, speed compensates for flight.  Like the other members of its intercontinental family, the ostrich is a flightless bird.

[Ostrich video]

The ostrich has flashier feathers than either of its cousins.  Adult male ostriches are black with a white wing tips and white tail feathers.  Females and young males have grayish-brown feathers – similar to those of their American cousin, the rhea.  The head and neck of the ostrich . . . well, . . . it looks like the bird is going bald — with only a sparse cover of “down.”   But, instead of a comb-over, the ostrich’s thin hair stands straight up.  It looks like it had a crew cut and, then, let it grow out.

Nature has given the ostrich all it needs to keep an eye on things.   The bird’s head rises 9-feet into the air.  Its eyes are 2 inches wide — the largest eyes of any land vertebrate (land animal with a back-bone).

Ostriches spend most of their time roaming in pairs.   Sometimes, during dry spells, these large birds form flocks.  Ostriches eat plants, but will also chow-down on some insects.  You’d expect the ostrich to be a daytime-animal like most birds.   But, if you’re wandering around in the wilds of Africa, on a moonlit night, you might meet an ostrich.  The moon gives enough light to make the ostrich comfortable enough for a nocturnal prowl.

When threatened, the ostrich will lie flat on the ground to fool passers-by into thinking it is nothing more than a bump on the ground.  But there’s one old story about the ostrich that isn’t true: this bird never hides its head in the sand.  When threatened, ostriches seem to prefer to just hide – as a first line of defense.  But, when push comes to shove, these birds are more than able to defend themselves.  Ostriches use their powerful legs to kick.  And they have quite a kick.  It can be fatal.

Speaking of legs, no discussion of the ostrich would be complete without a discussion of this bird’s toes.  Yes, toes.  The ostrich’s relatives, the emu and the rhea, are both unusual birds because they have only three toes.  Most birds have four toes – three forward and one “opposing” toe.  The opposing toe is used to help the bird hang on to branches and other perches in the wild.    Of course, if you’re a bird, and you don’t fly, you don’t perch.  Flightless birds like the emu and rhea use their feet to walk and run.  To a running bird, a fourth toe would be nothing but an irritation.

It seems only logical that the ostrich should also have three toes, but it’s hard to count the number of ways in which this particular family of birds is unusual.  And, if you count the toes, you’ll find that the ostrich has only two.  Also, you’d think if you had toes, they’d be a bit alike.   Again, this family is unusual.  One toe has an enormous nail that resembles a hoof.   The other toe has no nail at all.  The best guess is that this “reduced number of toes” helps the ostrich run even faster.

[Ostrich feet]

But before we leave the subject of the ostrich’s legs, we need to say a few words about predators.  Africa is no place for any animal that can’t defend itself.  Aside from the famous “king of the jungle,” the lion, the rest of the list includes cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas as just a few of the most ferocious predators from which the ostrich has to defend itself.  Surprisingly, this bird does an amazingly good job of defending itself and can more than hold its own in the jungle.  How, does it manage?  With its legs.  The ostrich uses its legs to defend itself in two very different ways.

First, “he who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.”  The ostrich often runs away from predators.  As the fastest land animal on earth, it’s got a built-in advantage in this department.   Unfortunately, young ostriches, which haven’t grown up to their full speed, are particularly vulnerable to predators that the adult birds can easily outrun.  Sometimes, predators succeed by ambushing the ostrich – hiding and pouncing on an unsuspecting bird.  The cheetah is not as fast as an ostrich but, sometimes, is fast enough to catch an ostrich before the bird can build-up to full speed.

Second, the ostrich can use its legs to fight.  When an ostrich can’t retreat, especially when defending its nest, it will use its legs against an attacker.  With all of its running, you might get the impression that the ostrich isn’t an effective fighter.  It almost seems inaccurate to say the ostrich uses its legs to defend itself, because its legs are so often fatal to its adversary.  Maybe it’s enough to say that ostriches can, and do, kill lions with their legs.

In the wild, ostriches avoid humans as potential predators.  Maybe it’s a good thing for humans that the ostrich prefers to run away.  Ostriches in the wild, and sometime in captivity, can attack humans if these birds feel threatened.  Human deaths occur each year from massive injuries from a single kick of a leg and a single swipe of a claw.  These birds are big and tough.

Of the members of this family, the ostrich, emu, and rhea, the mating behavior of the ostrich is “about in the middle” in terms of strangeness.  Like the rhea, during mating season, a single ostrich male will mate with as few as 2 or as many as 7 females.  Although the male mates with several females, it will form a couple – a bond – with only one of the females in the group.

The strangeness of ostrich mating involves its rituals.  The male will repeat a loud, booming call while doing a kind of dance in which it flaps one wing a few times and, then, the other a few times.  The female will run in a circle around the male, while the male winds his head in a spiral motion. Disturbingly, ostriches raised entirely by humans will direct these same rituals toward their human keepers.

Females lay their eggs in a shared nest.  Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any bird at about 6 inches in length and 3 pounds in weight.  The males sit on the eggs at night and, then, the females sit on the eggs during the day.   The eggs hatch in about 40 days.  The male principally defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, but both the male and female raise their young together.

[Ostrich family on a walk]

The young ostriches will not reach full maturity in less than 2 years and, if they survive predators until they reach adulthood, a large number can expect to live for many more years.  Ostriches have been known to live past 60 years of age.

Ostriches have always been a focus of human fascination.  Use of their feathers for ornamentation extends back almost to the beginning of recorded history.  However, only in the 19th century did commercial ostrich farming for feathers develop.   These giant birds where tamed by capturing baby ostriches and raising them in captivity.  Ostriches, by the way, aren’t plucked, but sort of sheared.  A new crop of feathers re-grows about every 8 months.  The ostrich industry was only about feathers until the 1970’s when ostrich skin/leather and ostrich meat became profitable products.

Also, ostrich racing is catching on.  In Africa, people race ostriches while riding on the birds’ backs.  The “riding-birds” are specially fitted with saddles, reins, and bits for the purpose.  In the United States, ostrich racing began in Jacksonville, Florida, with the ostriches pulling draw-carts with human occupants.  Now, races are not only held in Florida, but also in Arizona, Nevada, and Minnesota.

[Ostrich racing]

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