The Ostrich—Largest Bird on Earth
By “Awake!” correspondent in South Africa
“LISTEN!” The booming sound reverberated again through the bushveld.
“Is that a lion?”
“No, that’s a male ostrich showing off to his mate.”
The bushveld farmer and his friend left their Land Rover and crept carefully forward. Soon they could see the courting pair in a clearing. What huge birds! The ostrich is easily the largest bird on earth. But how gracefully it can dance!
The courting dance of the male bird is fascinating to watch. This remarkable display puts the ostrich among the foremost performers of the bird and animal kingdom. During the mating season, the plumage of the cock usually attains its brightest colors—black on the body and wings, with white wing quills, brownish-white tail feathers and a white collar around the skin of the neck. Female plumage is of a light-gray color and the skin dark gray. The skin of the mature cock is dark-lead blue and, at mating time, bright scarlet over the beak, forehead and eyes, as well as the front of the legs and toes.
The cock begins his dance with spectacular “waltzing” movements in dainty circles, as if on tiptoe, with raised wings, displaying his beautiful plumage. He approaches his mate gently, going down before her on his knees, or haunches. Patiently, he courts her with a rolling body movement and with wings slightly raised, moving them to and fro. He butts his head alternately against the right or the left arch of his back, thus making a thudding sound.
An appreciative hen will then raise her wings in a horizontal position, fluttering the tips gently. She does this almost bashfully, with her head held low, while opening and shutting her beak as if chewing air. After a while, she crouches for the male to perform the mating act.
A Fascinating Bird
Not only the dancing of the ostrich, but its very appearance, is fascinating. The largest of all birds, standing about eight feet (2.5 m) high, has a small head with big eyes and long lashes. Its eyeball is very large, about two inches (5 cm) in diameter. The eyelashes serve to protect those delicate eyes from the dust of the arid regions and the sandstorms of the desert.
An ostrich has a narrow, bare neck about three feet (1 m) long. Since its wings are small and its body so heavy, averaging about 240 pounds (109 kg), the ostrich cannot fly. However, respect for the bird grows as one observes its muscular thighs and strong legs. These enable it to run at speeds of about 45 miles (72 km) per hour, faster than a horse. Not without good reason, then, the Bible says that the ostrich “laughs at the horse and at its rider.”—Job 39:18.
Ostrich plumage is the main attraction. Those gorgeous feathers on the wings and tail are up to 30 inches long and 15 inches wide (76 by 38 cm). They were honored by the ancient Egyptians, were worn by medieval knights and European royalty, and were used for centuries to bedeck African chiefs and warriors. Even today, women from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro, as well as dancers on stage, highly prize these elegant plumages.
When instinct prompts pairing, the cock immediately gives attention to the building of the “nest,” if it can be called that. It is a crude affair. The cock chooses a spot with a clear view all around and frantically loosens the ground with his powerful feet. Then, with his breast, he scoops out a shallow depression, and that is the nest!
What About Its Manners?
Ostriches have truculent manners, especially in their natural habitat. The males fight with one another at the least provocation, especially during the breeding season. Their kicking power is tremendous. If irritated by a man and afforded the opportunity, an ostrich’s toe can rip open the individual’s chest and stomach with one blow.
When in a belligerent mood, cocks can be quite reckless. Consider this story of a cock that saw a train coming down a slope at full speed. He got onto the track and advanced to fight the foe. As the engine approached, he kicked. But, alas! It was his last kick.
Although these birds are so pugnacious, there is one thing that will make a charging ostrich stop and think—a thorn branch. Fear that his large, delicate eyes will be scratched on the long, sharp thorns will make him hold back and keep his distance. Ostrich farmers often use thorn branches to control their birds.
When egg-laying begins, the cock and his hen (or hens, for he often is polygamous, especially in the wild) take turns at sitting on the eggs. The hens, with their duller plumage that blends well with the surrounding terrain, take the “day shift.” On the other hand, the cocks, with their black plumage work the “night shift.” What excellent camouflage the Creator provided for these birds!
If enemies appear, the adult birds have the built-in ability to feign either death or injury to lure the foe away from the nest. An ostrich may pretend to have an injured leg and may stumble along pathetically, or it may lie so quietly in a death-like state that the enemy is deceived. If a predator comes near when the bird is on the nest, it will lay its head on the ground so that its rounded body looks just like an anthill. Wrote one ostrich farmer: “It is thought that the fallacy that an ostrich buries his head in the sand derives from this habit.”
In South Africa, ostrich farming is carried on mainly in the Little Karroo, with its center in the town of Oudtshoorn. The industry flourished well from about 1880 to 1914, ostrich feathers then being the height of fashion among women. Fortunes were made, and large mansions still seen in Oudtshoorn bear witness to that era. But with the coming of World War I there was a terrible slump, which lasted until after World War II. Today, however, the industry again is on sound footing.
The relatively low mentality of ostriches often presents problems when farming with them. For example: A male may take four or five females with him, sectioning off a portion of the veld. However, with so many females, about 35 to 40 eggs will lie scattered about the nest, some inside, others outside. During the day, each female chooses a few and “covers” them. By nightfall, the male probably will select just the center position on the nest and cover those eggs. Hence, many eggs never hatch.
To add to this problem, the male and the female will desert the nest three or four days after the first chicks have been hatched, regardless of how many eggs remain unhatched. No wonder the Bible indicates that “God has made [the ostrich] forget wisdom, and he has not given her a share in understanding.” (Job 39:17) For these and other reasons, to ensure a reasonable degree of success, incubators are used for hatching the eggs, rather than relying on such irresponsible parents.
Even then care must be exercised. Once in the morning and once at night, the eggs must be turned manually to simulate what the ostrich does to give movement to the germinating yolk and to prevent it from settling and sticking to the shell membrane. In the nest the parent birds turn the eggs regularly.
For incubating purposes, the eggs need to be collected from the field, and for the inexperienced this can be dangerous. The eggs must be taken from the nests, which are nearly always attended by the birds. Farmhands go in among the birds with horses and put the eggs in bags packed with straw. The eggs are heavy, each weighing about three and a half pounds (1.6 kg), and they are about six inches (15 cm) long, with a white, porous shell. They are easily cracked or broken if knocked together. Remarkably, though, without breaking, they can take the weight of a man standing on them.
A Look at the Hatching Process
If you want to boil an egg hard—and ostrich eggs provide fine nourishment—it will take about 42 minutes. But if you want to witness one of the most marvelously intricate pieces of natural machinery going into action for 42 days, follow the farmer as he prepares his incubator. He packs the ostrich eggs on trays and sets the ventilated heat at approximately 98 degrees Fahrenheit (37° C). This simple application of heat to the germ life of the egg triggers a process that should humble the wisest of men.
At the end of the gestation period, we find that the unborn chick has filled the shell completely and is ready to emerge. But how will the thick shell be broken? The chick itself does this. With its beak? No, with the claw on the larger of its two toes. The packaging of this marvel of creation has to be seen to be believed. Why, the large toe is next to the head and beak of the chick! The toe breaks the shell and the chick begins breathing through its nostrils. The longer it breathes, the more vigorous its kick becomes, until the shell breaks and the chick is free. Lining the inside of the shell is a many-layered plastic-like membrane (or, inner shell) housing all the intricate connections through the navel tube. As the membrane dries while the chick is emerging, so does the tube. Truly a most exciting and delicate function.
The farmer is very careful not overly to hasten these critical movements and break an excessive amount of the shell in an effort to help the emerging chick. Doing so would expose too much of the membrane, cause it to dry out too fast, and so, by its contracting, it would suffocate the chick.
Several days will pass before the new chick takes in food and water. During that period, it will be sustained by the yolk, which, shortly before hatching, has slipped through the chick’s navel. The little creature’s first meal is a very strange one—its mother’s droppings! Evidently, this gives some kind of stability to the stomach, which is most delicate at this stage and is the cause of great concern to the farmer. Many fatalities among chicks can occur because of incorrect early feeding. But in later life the ostrich will greedily satisfy its almost insatiable appetite, swallowing nearly everything it can get. Being an indiscriminate feeder, the ostrich was included among the unclean birds listed in the Mosaic law. (Lev. 11:13, 16) Since the ostrich lacks teeth, it swallows small pebbles that combine with the muscular movement of the upper stomach to mash its food.
It is standard practice to introduce to a breeding pair the three- or four-day-old chicks that have been hatched in an incubator. The foster parents accept the chicks happily and bring them up as their own. After the chicks have been left in the enclosure and the hen catches sight of them, she goes to them and immediately excretes the vital droppings. The chicks feed just once on them. Many new chicks can be introduced to the same foster parents, and ultimately the pair may be caring for up to 100 chicks.
Skins and Meat
Ostrich skin makes a tough, soft leather much in demand by manufacturers of shoes, handbags, gloves and other items. It is light brown in color and is easily recognizable by its evenly spaced nodules.
The dried, raw meat, or biltong, obtained from ostriches is of good quality and is considered a delicacy by many South Africans. Slaughtering used to be done by breaking the neck, but the resulting biltong was of poor quality. Recently, the slaughterhouses have been bleeding the birds, resulting in a marked improvement in the quality and durability of the biltong. Local farmers were both delighted and surprised. But especially is this procedure desirable because of God’s requirement that Christians “keep abstaining . . . from blood.”—Acts 15:28, 29; Deut. 12:23-25.
Fierce. Foolish. Flightless. Fascinating. All these words apply to this unusual “mammoth” of the bird world. Quaint in appearance and strange in some of its ways, the ostrich certainly magnifies the wisdom and variety evident in its Maker’s handiwork.