When most people think of African Safari animals, they think hippopotamus, lions, and all manner of monkeys. But one of the most amazing animals you will find on the Savannah is the ostrich. Many people know that the ostrich is the largest bird on the planet, but did you know its eye is almost five cm across? Many people know that this bird has long, powerful legs to propel it across the plains, but do you know how powerful those legs are? How fast this bird really is?
A Body That Works
While somewhat strange looking, the body of an ostrich is perfectly suited for life on the Savannah. The large eye allows the ostrich to spot predators at a distance, while the long legs take strides of over 15 feet. The ostrich can run over 40 miles an hour to evade those same predators. And if the ostrich cannot run away, it can use the legs as weapons. An ostrich kick could kill a lion or a human with the force behind the blow. The ostrich also uses its head in territorial disputes, slamming its head into and through an opponent’s chest, killing the weaker male.
While they have no teeth, ostriches have evolved a way to break down their food to aid in digestion. They eat pebbles and small rocks, which, in their stomachs (yes, there is more than one –three in fact) grind against each other and break down the ingested food. In fact, at any given time, an adult ostrich has more than two pounds of pebbles in its stomach.
Ostriches love water, and take frequent baths when there is water available. But, Africa having a lengthy dry season means that there is often not the water that ostriches would prefer. Given that, the ostrich has evolved to be able to survive for several days without ingesting any water. They get the water they need from the moisture in the roots and insects they eat and use up metabolic water as needed. Interestingly, ostriches are the only birds that urinate and defecate as two separate bodily functions.
Ostriches can be loners, but more often than not, live in pairs or groups. During the winter, the groups are smaller, with ostriches ranging alone or in pairs. During the breeding season, however, ostriches will group into wandering herd of up to fifty birds. This group will be led by a “top hen” and will often travel with other pack animals to graze, typically antelope or zebra.
When the ostrich’s breed, all the hens of the tribe will lay their eggs in the top hen’s nest. This nest is almost ten feet across, and each hen knows which eggs are hers. The eggs that ostriches lay are the largest of any bird, coming in at a whopping five inches in diameter, and weighing as much as two-dozen chicken eggs.
Like seahorses and penguins, male ostriches play an active role in the incubation and care of their eggs. The hens incubate and care for the eggs during the day, using their dun colored plumage to blend in with their surroundings. The males, however, take over the job at night, with their black coloring making them almost indistinguishable from the inky black of night.
Ostriches and People
Mankind has long been inspired and awed by the ostrich. The fascination dates back over 5,000 years to Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. One common misconception people have about ostriches, however, is the belief that they bury their heads in the sand when threatened. This is not at all true. Ostriches will lay their necks along the ground to camouflage their bodies when threatened, and this can appear that the head is buried in the sand, but that is only because the plumage of the body blends in with the sandy soil and tall grasses.
Ostriches have been sought after for a variety of reasons. They are farmed for their feathers and meat, and even their skin is used for leather shoes, bags and other products. There are some countries in Africa where ostriches are fitted with special saddles and reins are people race on ostrich-back. The intrigue abounds, even as the ostrich population dwindles. The last 200 years have seen the ostrich population diminish drastically, and most ostriches are now found in sanctuaries or on farms.
When you depart on your African safari, make sure to add the majestic ostrich to your “must-see” list, alongside the lions, elephants, and giraffes. These truly are incredible animals and are worth your time. Bon Voyage!
Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa