Ostrich: The Camel Bird in More Ways Than One
The ostrich is the world’s largest living bird. Although they are lightless bird they are great runners, with speeds up to 43mph they are the world’s fastest two-legged animal. They were sometimes referred to as the “camel bird” because of its similarity to the camel. Not only does it have the long neck, prominent eyes, long eyelashes, it can also tolerate high temperatures and go without water for long periods of time. They normally live between 40 to 45 years, with some in captivity have living over 60 years. Although once considered to be only one species they have since been split into 2 separate species, the Common Ostrich and the Somali Ostrich.
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Information About Ostrich
Distribution & habitat
Ostriches formerly occupied most of Africa and much of Asia Minor, but were hunted to extinction in many areas by the middle of the 20th century. Today most wild ostriches prefer the open land and live in the savannas and sub-Saharan Africa, both north and south of the equatorial forest zone. There are also many preserves and farms all over the world. There are also some reports of escaped ostriches establishing feral populations in Australia and are occasionally seen inhabiting islands on the Dahlak Archipelago, in the Red Sea near Eritrea.
With their long legs and neck ostriches are the largest and heaviest bird in the world. They have a large round body with a small head that seems rather small compared to the large body. Their eyes can be up to 2” in diameter making them the largest of any land vertebrate. The adult males use their striking coloring to perform courting displays to attract females.
Their body and wings are black, with white primaries and either white or buff tail feathers depending on the species. Females and young males are greyish-brown and white. The head and neck of all ostriches is nearly bare, with a thin layer of down. The strong legs of the ostrich are bare, with the lowest upright part of the leg being covered in scales, red on the male and black on female. Ostriches only have 2 toes, instead of the 3 or 4 toes most birds have. The inner toe resembling a hoof which seems to aid in running so they can get away from predators. Their skin color also varies based on the species, some are grey and others are pink to red. In addition to the courting day, their wings help them maintain balance and shade the chicks. Their feathers lack the tiny hooks that lock to create the smooth feathers on most flying birds, which gives them a shaggy look. However, they are soft, provide good insulation and are waterproof due to a special gland used when preening. They have 50–60 tail feathers and 36 to 39 feathers in their wings.
Ostriches are omnivores, and they eat whatever is available in their habitat at that time of the year. Although they prefer to eat plants, especially roots, leaves, and seeds, but they will occasionally eat insects, snakes, lizards, or rodents that come within reach. Ostriches eat things that other animals can’t digest. These big birds swallow sand, pebbles, and small stones that help grind up food in the gizzard. Although Ostriches do not need to drink water, since they get what they need from the plants. However they do like water and will drink if they come across a water hole.
Behavior and social groups
Watch these little one run!
During breeding season ostriches will flock together in bigger groups of 5 to 50, although during extreme droughts groups as large as 100 have been seen. Outside the 5 month breeding season they will be found in alone or in pairs. Although the flock is maintained by an alpha males, it is led by a dominate hen. They can sometimes be seen traveling with grazing animals like zebras or antelopes but are diurnal so are active early and late in the day. Even though the Ostrich has many adaptations that allow it to survive without water, they still enjoy it and will take frequent baths when they get a chance.
Although their behavior can vary based on where they are all ostrich flocks have complex structures and are territorial. The males will use an elaborate display to compete for flocks of 3 to 5 hens. Once divided into mating groups of 5 to 6 birds the male will build a communal nest scraped into the ground that will hold between 15 to 60 eggs. The dominate hen will lay hers first and will sort through the others sometimes discarding ones from other hens. They will then cover them with the males watching them at night and the females during the day. The large eggs are a glossy cream color, with thick shells weighing about 3 pounds.
Eggs take approximately 40 days to hatch. Fewer than 10% of nests survive the 9 week period of laying and incubation, and of the surviving chicks, only 15% of those survive to 1 year of age. Although all the adults co-operate with raising the chicks, the male is the one that will typically be the one to defend the chicks and teach them to feed. When family groups of ostriches meet, they may challenge each other with short chases, and then the winning adult pair takes all the chicks with them. Some of these “nurseries” can end up with 300 chicks and only a couple of adults to mind them. Fewer than 10% of nests survive the 9 week period of laying and incubation, and of the surviving chicks, only 15% of those survive to 1 year of age.
However, among those ostriches who survive to adulthood, the species is one of the longest-living bird species. Ostriches in captivity have lived to 62 years and 7 months.
With their acute eyesight and hearing, ostriches can sense predators such as lions from far away. They will also sometime try to hide by lying down with their heads and necks flat on the ground, making them appear like a mound of earth from a distance, many believe this is where the myth that ostriches bury their heads in the ground started. If they are not able to run or hide from their predator, they will kick which can cause serious injury and death.
Conservation status and threats
At one time most of Africa was home to the Ostrich. Today its numbers and distribution in the wild have declined so significantly due to human activities that they were nearly brought to extinction and are no longer found in some areas. Although their feathers had been during the 18th century their feathers were in high demand but during the 19th century the practice of farming began to spread so they could be plucked instead of killed.
Today they are farmed and hunted for their feathers, hide, meat, eggs and fat- which in Somalia is believed to be a treatment for AIDS and diabetes. In South Africa there has been a widespread effort to get their numbers back up by reintroducing them into protected areas or private land, these areas are where their largest numbers now occur.
The IUCN and Birdlife both list the Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) species as Least Concern because their range remains very large 3,800,000 square miles and despite the declining population it is not declining as rapidly enough to be an issue at this time. The IUCN does have the Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes) is now listed as Vulnerable by on the IUCN list because of continued decrease in population with total disappearance from some areas since the late 1980s. The subspecies Syriacus (S. c. syriacus) of the Middle East has been reported to have become extinct in 1966. There are also some groups that believe that the North African ostrich (S. c. camelus) has declined to the point where it now is included on CITES Appendix I and so should be treated it as Critically Endangered.
Contributed by Nikela Volunteer Lis Redden