The Ostrich, Struthio camelus, is a flightless bird native to Africa. It is the only living species of its family, Struthionidae. Ostriches occur naturally on the savannas and Sahel of Africa, both north and south of the equatorial forest zone. Other members of this group include rheas, emus, cassowaries and the largest bird ever, the now-extinct Aepyornis. Six subspecies are recognized:
- S.c. australis in Southern Africa
- S.c. camelus in North Africa.
- S.c. massaicus in East Africa.
- S.c. molybdophanes in Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya.
- S.c. massaicus in northeastern Kenya.
- S.c. syriacus in the Middle East. This subspecies became extinct around
They are distinct in their appearance, with a long neck and legs and the ability to run at speeds of about 40 mph. Ostriches are the largest living species of bird and are farmed all over the world. They usually weigh from 200 to 285 pounds, although some male ostriches have been recorded with weights of up to 340 pounds. Adult ostriches grow to be between 5.5 to 9 feet in height, females grow to about 6.5 feet.
The feathers of adult males are mostly black, with some white on the wings and tail. Females and young males are grayish-brown, with a bit of white. The small vestigial wings are used by males in mating displays. They can also provide shade for chicks. The feathers are soft and serve as insulation, and are quite different from the stiff airfoil feathers of flying birds. There are claws on two of the wings’ fingers. The strong legs of the ostrich lack feathers. The bird stands on two toes, with the bigger one resembling a hoof. This is an adaptation unique to ostriches that appears to aid in running.
Ostriches live in nomadic groups of 5 to 50 birds that often travel together with other grazing animals, such as zebras or antelopes. They mainly feed on seeds and other plant matter, and occasionally insects such as locusts. Lacking teeth, they swallow pebbles that help to grind the swallowed foods in the gizzard. They can go without water for a long time, exclusively living off the moisture in the ingested plants. However, they enjoy water and frequently take baths.
With their acute eyesight and hearing, they can sense predators such as lions from far away. When lying down and hiding from predators, the birds are known to lay their head and neck flat on the ground, making them appear as a mound of earth from a distance. When threatened, ostriches run away, but they can also seriously injure with kicks from their powerful legs. It is a myth that ostriches will bury their head in sand when frightened. It is likely that they would suffocate.
Ostriches become sexually mature at 2 to 4 years old. Female birds mature about six months earlier than males. The mating season begins in March or April and ends sometime before September. The mating process differs in different geographical regions. Territorial males will typically use hisses and other sounds to fight for a harem of 2 to 5 females (which are called hens). The winner of these fights will breed with all the females in an area but only form a pair bond with one, the dominant female.
The female lays her eggs in a single shared nest, a pit scraped in the ground 12 to 24 inches deep. Eggs are incubated by females in daylight and by the male at night. A nest can contain anywhere from 15 to 60 eggs that are whitish in color and weigh about 3 pounds each. The gestation period is 35 to 45 days and the male generally tends to the hatchlings.
While wild ostriches are native to Africa, they are now bred all over the world. They can prosper in such climates ranging from 90 degrees to 20 below. Ostriches are farmed for their leather, which is claimed to be the strongest commercially available. They are also farmed for their meat, which tastes similar to lean beef and is low in fat and cholesterol, as well as high in calcium, protein and iron. They have also been used for racing, being able to carry a small human.