When it comes to records, the ostrich is an absolute champion! It’s the world’s biggest and heaviest bird, its fastest on two legs and lays the biggest egg… It has the largest eye of any land animal and blinks just once a minute! There’s a multitude of facts and figures about this fascinating, flightless bird, but nothing really prepares you for actually seeing one in its natural habitat and understanding just how truly and magnificently odd it is!
Standing up to 2,8m high and weighing as much as two adult humans, the ostrich has an amazingly long neck and long, powerful unfeathered legs. It’s head seems almost too small for its body and its bill is comparitively miniscule at just short of 15cm. It has just two toes on each foot (most birds have four) and the nail on the larger toe looks more like a hoof. The other toe has no nail at all. Its lower leg (the tarsus) is scaly and resembles that of a dinosaur. It can clock up speeds of more than 70km per hour, and covers up to 5m in a single stride.
Adult males have mostly black feathers with white primaries and tails, while females and young males are gray-brown in colour. Their heads and necks are nearly bare, with just a thin layer of down covering them. Newly hatched chicks are a fawn colour with dark brown spots to help them blend into their surroundings. They grow up to 25cm a month.
Ostrich feathers are altogether different to other bird feathers, lacking the tiny hooks that lock them together to give them a smooth, aerodynamic surface. Rather they are soft and fluffy and serve as insulation. Their wings act as rudders and stabilisers when they run, helping them to brake and swerve.
Ostriches eat mostly plant matter like seeds, shrubs, grasses, fruit and flowers, but also some invertebrates like locusts. They also swallow small pebbles to help grind food in their gizzards. In the winter months they are normally seen in pairs or alone, but in the breeding season and in extreme drought they will gather in large groups of up to 100 birds. Their eyesight is acute, as is their hearing, and they can sense predators like lions from great distances. They use their speed to avoid predators but can also deliver powerful forward kicks from their legs and their sharp toes can eviscerate. Hen ostriches lay their eggs in a communal nest – usually a simple pit scraped into the ground by the male. While ostrich eggs are the world’s largest, relative to the size of the ostrich itself they are the smallest. The eggs are incubated by both the males and females for up to 45 days.