Of all the birds that strut through the African plains, is there a species more easily recognizable than the ostrich? With its large round eyes adorned with endless black eyelashes, its pink or blue neck, its plump body, its long sturdy legs, and its black and white plumage, the ostrich steals the show in the savannas and deserts. But other than being the biggest and heaviest bird on earth, what do you really know about the ostrich?
Test your knowledge by browsing through our 15 intriguing and captivating facts about this over 20-million-year-old ratite!
The 15 Fun and Interesting Ostrich Facts
1. Ostriches Are the Largest Living Birds in the World
You already know that the ostrich is a giant bird, but do you realize how heavy it is? About 9 feet tall and 350 pounds is what an adult male of the North African ostrich can weigh, making it the largest ostrich subspecies among its four counterparts!
2. Ostriches Can’t Fly
Ostriches cannot fly, but they use their atrophied wings to maintain their balance, which helps them when running or turning.
3. Ostriches Are the Fastest Bipedal Land Animals
Even if your name is Usain Bolt, you will never outrun an ostrich! Indeed, it may be heavy and flightless, but the ostrich is the fastest two-legged land animal in the world. It can reach a top speed of 43 miles per hour (mph) and cover a distance of over 40 miles per hour. For comparison, that’s almost twice the 100-meter speed of the world’s fastest human!
4. An Ostrich Can Kill a Lion
It’s not a myth: the extremely powerful legs of the ostrich are a deadly weapon that can kill a careless lion. In addition to being able to deliver fearsome kicks, the ostrich has two-toed feet with a long, sharp claw. If it feels threatened, it will not hesitate to use it to scare away the enemy. And if an enraged ostrich can finish off a lion, imagine what it would do to a reckless human!
5. A Single Ostrich Egg Fills You Up for a Whole Day
The huge ostrich eggs contain up to 2,000 calories, equivalent to the daily ration of an average adult person! Indeed, an ostrich egg weighs between 3 to 5 pounds. That’s about as much as 12 chicken eggs.
6. Ostriches Eat Pebbles and Sand
The ostrich’s diet is mouth-watering: sand, pebbles, grass, and a few small insects and lizards here and there. Delicious! But if we can understand why the ostrich—which is omnivorous—mainly grazes on grass and enriches its diet with small invertebrates, pebbles, and sand, that’s all the more interesting. This strange combination of nosh is due to the fact that the ostrich has no teeth to grind food. Thus, it swallows sand and small rocks to help its digestive system grind and break down its food.
7. An Ostrich Can Live as Long as a Human Being
In their natural habitat, ostriches can live for up to 40 years, but they can reach the ripe old age of 75 in captivity.
8. Ostriches Have a Brain Smaller Than Their Eyes
The size of ostrich eyes exceeds the size of their brain. Consequently, these large birds are not particularly smart, but their eyeballs among the largest of any land vertebrate allow them to see up to 2 miles. This is pretty useful for detecting a cheetah lurking in the tall grass of the African savannah!
9. Ostriches Don’t Really Bury Their Heads in the Ground
Contrary to an old belief, the ostrich does not bury its head in the ground to go “unnoticed” by its predators. In fact, when feeding, resting, mating, or caring for its eggs, the ostrich has its head very close to the ground, which can create the illusion that it has its head buried. Thus, certain behaviors of this bird can give the impression that it is putting its head in the sand, but in fact, when threatened, the ostrich tends to run away or even attack.
10. Ostriches Appeared on Earth More Than 20 Million Years Before Humans
The fossil record of modern ostriches dates back to the early Miocene, around 23 to 20 million years ago. For comparison, the first humans would have emerged in Africa only 2 million years ago.
11. Ostriches Have Excellent Hearing and Vision
This helps them detect predators (like cheetahs, lions, hyenas, or human hunters) from afar. However, their ability to watch for danger is reduced when they have to lower their heads to eat. This is also why ostriches prefer to stay in flocks and graze only in the presence of other of these sentinel birds.
12. Ostrich Eyelids Are Similar to Cat Eyelids
To better protect its eye from sand, the ostrich has a nictitating membrane that closes horizontally, from the inside to the outer edge of the eye. Cats, polar bears, seals, sharks, and camels also have nictitating eyelids.
13. Ostriches Are Well Adapted to Survive in Harsh Environments
The semi-desert environments inhabited by these large, hardy birds have significant temperature variations between day and night. Daytime temperatures often exceed 104°F, while nighttime values drop below 32°F. Thus, to survive these extreme conditions, the ostrich has a puffy plumage which, by trapping the air, forms a good insulator.
Moreover, during the day, its plumage prevents solar radiation from directly reaching the skin and, at night, it retains body heat. In addition, the ostrich’s wings, acting like large fans, are perfect for cooling the blood circulating in the superficial vessels of its bare thighs.
14. Ostriches Have an Ingenious Cunning
To protect their young, ostriches—especially males—resort to a special trick: faced with a predator, like a hyena, the bird begins to run in zigzag, alternately dangling its wings. Misinterpreting that they are dealing with a wounded animal, the intruder sets off in pursuit of this easy “prey,” which suddenly resumes normal behavior. Disconcerted, the assailant most often abandons his attack.
15. Ostriches Are Endangered
The North African ostrich, or red-necked ostrich, is endangered in several countries in North and Central Africa. As such, it is listed as a species in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Poaching, destruction of its natural habitat, and illegal hunting practices are the main reasons for the decline of this subspecies.
Besides humans, the adult ostrich has few natural predators, but their young are not immune to hyenas, cheetahs, lions, and jackals.
As you will have understood, ostriches are much more than large plump flightless birds! There are a ton of fascinating facts about them that will hopefully inspire you to pay more attention to them on your African safari, or more realistically…the next time you go to the zoo!
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Featured Image Credit: Svetla Ilieva, Shutterstock