The Dinosaur Bird of Our Time

“………the ostrich? Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in the dust, and forgeteth that the wild beast may break them. She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers; her labour is in vain without fear; …….. with time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and the rider.”  

Even the scripture expresses awe at this wonder bird. Generations after generations, the ostrich has survived where her compatriot the dinosaurs have failed to exist. At a point in time it was feared that this elegant bird was in danger of extinction because a certain strain of its race (the Arabian race) has not been spotted since 1941.

All ostriches belong to a single species, which has six races. The best known are Struthio camelus camelus of North Africa, ranging from the Atlas Mountains to Sudan; S.c molybdophanes of Somaliland and Northern Kenya; S.c massaicus of eastern equatorial Africa; and S.c australis of South Africa. The southern race is now quite local, finding its optimum number in the Kalahari Desert of Bechuana land and in adjacent portions of South West Africa, southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), northern Transvaal and Mozambique. On the northwest coast of Africa is a small and little know race S,.c spatzi.

The importance of ostriches revolves around environmental, economic and social perspectives. On the one hand, ostrich farming, one of the latest branches of agriculture, is environment friendly. It has the natural capacity of optimising quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment. Indeed, ostrich farming is a worthy candidate for biodiversity. In fact, many observers are of the opinion that ostrich farming is a best option for organic agriculture. On the other hand, the economic value of this bird is best described as high yielding indeed. Sales from a single processed ostrich bird- from the cornea, the skin, feathers, meat, bones to its innards amount about $30,000. Imagine owning a farm with a capacity to produce 100 ostriches yearly? In addition, ostriches could make good pets if well integrated in your home. It also provides security in such homes and could be a better “guard” than the dog. The beauty of an ostrich in your homes is a lovely sight to behold … as it moves silently and friendly yet intimidating unlike a talkative parrot, a noisy dog, or a deadly lion. Owning a pet ostrich is like owning a contentious car.

The cock ostrich which beams the prized fluffy black and white curly plumes is distinct from the hen ostrich with a duller brownish plumage. It stands at nearly 8ft high and weighs 300lb (approximately 136kg)- a dinosaur compared with other living birds.

The ostrich cannot fly and together with other flightless birds, is placed in a special group, Ratitae, members of which are characterized by the absence of a keel on the breast bone. The bulk of the ostrich’s body is muscle which, coupled with a pair of long legs each bearing two distinct toes and a light bone frame, makes the ostrich the fleetest animal on two feet. It is estimated that an ostrich can stride across a flat plain at a speed of up to 40mph (64kmph)      sustained for about 30 minutes. In fact, some captives have been trained for racing either     saddled or harnessed to light two-wheeled carts. Here lies the strength of the ostrich such that “…..when she begins to run, she can laugh at any horse and rider.”

The ostrich dwells on sandy plains and open country especially in the eastern parts of Africa. Perhaps by virtue of the nature of its feet and speed, the open plain may as well be its natural habitat. However ostriches are very hardy and can survive on any terrain. They travel in small troops of five or six; usually one bird is a cock and the rest hens. In the wild, a troop will form mixed herds with antelopes, zebras, deer etc. The eye sight of an ostrich is telescopic. No wonder why an ostrich’s cornea is the surgeon’s best substitute for the human cornea. The ostrich sits, stretches its lanky neck along the ground and peers intently from its resting or hiding place at some far-off threat. From a distance it appears as though the ostrich buries its head in the ground since only its bulky body is visible, hence the belief that the bird hides its head in the sand.

It is fascinating to observe the peculiar behaviour of ostriches. When provoked, the cock produces a loud hissing sound, somewhat like a muffled roar. It also stretches to a height of about 12ft, wings stretched apart and like an American footballer, wrestles any obstacle with its powerful chest. This behaviour is noticed when two cock ostriches are at loggerheads- they stretch high towards heavens as if to measure their heights and prove who’s the boss. They tend to look down intimidating each other while stretched out on their toes; shoves painful pecks, quick kicks often follow while the wrestle for dominance lasts. When danger is imminent, it is hard to predict an ostrich’s reaction. It may warily move away or stay to perform its “dance of fury”. The ostrich’s neck turns red, it squats very low with its neck tucked in its wings, stretches out and it swings rhythmically from side to side with its head and wings in harmony to the click-clack-click-clack sound which it produces from this dance. This “dance of fury” which may last between 4 and 10 minutes, has some strange hypnotic effect on any observer be it a predator or a poacher. It is stunning indeed. However, completion of this “dance of fury” precedes a blind rugby-like, suicide charge towards whoever or whatever poses as a threat, and bang! Just one kick is enough to cause devastating damage. In case you are met with this situation running away from a furious ostrich is a futile attempt. Your best and safest option is to lie down flat on your face, hands over your head and remain still like an apprehended criminal, stay frozen in this position until the ostrich walks away.

I once observed a collision between a furious ostrich and a wagon car – the    impact was needless to say, devastating. The car was badly damaged, while the   ostrich simply ran off with just a scratch on the thigh and some loss of feathers – a hit and run accident case you may say. Just imagine a security guard ostrich kicking a robber over your fence in rage.

Ostriches forage together for anything fit or unfit to eat ranging from small animals, insects as well as fruits and other plant parts to inedible materials like rocks, broken glasses, buttons etc. I once lost a calculator to an ostrich – for this reason, it is advisable not to eat the Gastro-intestinal portion of the ostrich. However, farmed ostrich are fed with formulated balanced ration in order to achieve rapid growth to market weight.

The hen lays up to 15 eggs each weighing about 3pounds (1.36kg) i.e. an equivalent of 30 chicken eggs. Several hens combine to lay their eggs in one nest. The cock sits on the eggs by night to guard the eggs from beasts of prey while during the day, both sexes take turns to relieve one another. The heat of the sun suffices for incubation rather than the brooding behaviour of the ostrich.

About six weeks later the eggs hatch revealing yellowish and black-striped, bristly downed young. At about a month after hatching, the young ostriches are agile enough to run at a speed of over 40 km/hr, perhaps to compensate for the great neglect they suffer from their parents.

The threat of extinction of this elegant dinosaur bird is vague indeed. Ostrich farms now exist all over the globe, from the traditional homestead farm of Africa to the modern suffocated farms of Europe, Latin America and North America. It is enough for me to say that the ostrich is here to stay.01

Jovi Otite

Jovi Otite (Ph.d) is the co-founder of BornBlack. He is an Animal Science Expert in Animal Reproduction, agriculture and alternative renewable energy.

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