Fleet-Footed, Flightless, and Fascinating—The Ostrich
By Awake! correspondent in Kenya
AMONG the giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, and gazelles that roam the vast African savanna dwell some of the most remarkable creatures ever designed by the Creator. People who see them are awed by their large size, great height, powerful legs, and beautiful fluffy feathers. Standing up to eight feet [2.5 m] tall and weighing up to 345 pounds [155 kg], they are the largest birds in existence. In the Swahili language, these birds are called mbuni, but you may recognize them by their more common name, ostrich.
Like a Strutting Camel
Long ago the ostrich was given the name struthocamelus, which is a combination of Latin and Greek, referring to a supposed similarity to camels. Like the camel, the ostrich is tolerant of high temperatures and thrives in desert country. It also has long luxuriant eyelashes, which protect its large eyes from the dust of the bushveld. Its legs are long and sinewy, and its feet are strong and fleshy, with only two toes. Seeing the ostrich strutting about in the open plains, observers are amazed at its agility, endurance, and other camellike characteristics.
The ostrich grazes among its hoofed neighbors, feeding on almost anything that slithers, creeps, or crawls. The ostrich is omnivorous and not only dines on insects, snakes, rodents, roots, and most vegetation but also swallows wood, shells, stones, sticks, and almost any small, brightly colored object.
Because of its great size and weight, it cannot fly. However, its muscular legs are powerful enough to make it one of the fastest creatures on earth. Running across desert country, it can attain speeds of up to 40 miles [65 km] per hour! The ostrich “laughs at the horse and at its rider,” notes the Bible. (Job 39:18) True to that observation, this two-legged speedster’s great swiftness and long-distance stamina allow it to outrun many of the fastest four-legged predators with ease.
During the breeding season, the male ostrich performs elaborate courtship displays. Kneeling before the female, he extends his large white-and-black wing feathers and begins to shake them rhythmically. Like two enormous fans, they move from side to side. His bare neck and legs begin to blush, turning a bright pink color, which contrasts beautifully with his jet-black body feathers. Swinging his long neck from side to side, he stamps the ground with his feet.
Likely this fancy show of feathered finesse is designed to impress the drab-colored female. Yet, often enough, as the male continues his nuptial courting dance, the female moves about pecking the ground, inattentive and indifferent to the commotion going on around her.
Once a female is selected, the male chooses a nesting site. He will scratch a shallow depression in the dust somewhere in the open savanna and will lead several females to it. After two or three weeks, the nest contains two dozen or more eggs, laid by those females.
Throughout the six weeks that it will take to incubate the eggs, the male will sit on the nest during the night, and one female will do so during the day. At this point the eggs are vulnerable and are sought after by hungry lions, hyenas, jackals, and even Egyptian vultures, who break open eggs by throwing stones against their shells.
Giant Eggs, Enormous Chicks
The gray-white or ivory eggs of the ostrich are the largest in the world and can weigh about three pounds [1.5 kg] each. The shell is hard and glossy and has a glazed, porcelainlike finish. Each egg is the equivalent of 25 hens’ eggs, and ostrich eggs are prized for their rich contents and delicious taste. Empty shells are sometimes used as containers by Bushmen, who fill them with water.
When the huge egg reaches the stage of hatching, it produces an enormous chick! Newborns are defenseless, but they grow fast and are born runners. Within a month their stout legs carry them at speeds approaching 35 miles per hour [55 kph]!
Protection of the chicks rests with the parent birds. That the ostrich buries its head in the sand when faced with danger is a myth. On the contrary, parent birds can be fiercely aggressive when protecting their brood, driving away predators with powerful kicks. Another defense tactic they employ is distracting the predator by pretending to be wounded, thus drawing attention away from their young and to themselves. However, if a predator comes too close to them, the parents usually turn tail and run for their lives, leaving their young to fend for themselves. The Bible statement is proved true, for on these occasions the ostrich “does treat her sons roughly, as if not hers.”—Job 39:16.
For thousands of years, man has admired the ostrich. Pictures carved in stone depict ancient Egyptian kings hunting the ostrich with bows and arrows. Some civilizations considered the ostrich sacred. The Chinese prized the beautifully symmetrical ostrich eggs and offered them as precious gifts to rulers. For thousands of years, luxuriant flowing plumes of ostrich feathers have adorned the headdresses of military generals, kings, and African chiefs.
In the 14th century, ostrich feathers became highly valued by fashion-conscious Europeans. Yet, hunting the ostrich with spears and arrows was not easy, since the animal has keen eyesight and swiftly flees from danger. At that time, the ostrich was in no danger of extermination.
Then, in the 19th century, ostrich feathers again became fashionable. This time, armed with modern weapons, hunters slaughtered ostriches by the millions. The advent of ostrich farms probably saved the huge flightless bird from extinction. Now bred in captivity, ostriches have been domesticated and are raised to provide feathers for fashion and for feather dusters. Their skin is made into soft leather gloves and handbags, and their meat is served in some restaurants.
Today the magnificent ostrich still roams the African plains. Even though its former habitat is much reduced and it has become extinct in some areas, it continues to dwell in the solitary dry bushland that it prefers. There it can be seen wildly racing across the plains with its great flowing plumes, performing its elaborate courting dances, or watching over its nest of huge eggs. Indeed, this fleet-footed, flightless bird is another fascinating winged creature that brings delight and wonder to those who see it.
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A male ostrich
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Ostriches are among the fastest creatures on earth
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Their feet can be powerful weapons
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A female ostrich