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02 Feb, 2023
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The biggest bird

The Biggest Bird!!!- Article by Gareth Jones

The Biggest Bird In The World!

Several years ago, we visited the Oudtshoorn district in South Africa, well known for the many large Ostrich farms in the area. We stood behind a fence watching the many ostrich feeding, soon a large male walked right up to the fence and stood opposite to me. It was at that moment that I realized how huge and tall Ostriches are, this particular bird towered over me. It is recorded that male ostriches can vary from 7ft to 9ft (2.1-2.8 m) in height and weigh over 150 kg. So then it is no wonder that even though they have large wings, they simply cannot fly.

However, they do make up for the lack of flight with well practised, skilful running skills. For example, one fine afternoon, I drove into the park from the East gate. An ostrich was walking quickly parallel to the road. So I drove slowly forward towards him, the ostrich responded by increasing its pace to a steady jog, and then began to run as I drove along at about 30 km/h, this continued for over a kilometre as he seemingly tirelessly ran slightly ahead of the vehicle over the grass next to the road. Then he suddenly broke into a sprint and darted across the road, with a zigzag movement, as though he was trying to get away from a predator. Then he stopped suddenly, and behaved as if I was not even there, and continued to look for suitable stones to digest on the ground. Maybe he just likes running to keep fit, or just for the sheer joy of it?

They are interesting to watch, firstly they are the largest birds in the World, and they cannot fly due to size & weight. Males look majestic with black feathers and a white undercarriage, while the females are a drab grey. Imagine if women in our world all looked drab, and did not care for fashion?

They mainly feed on seeds, shrubs, grass, fruit, and flowers, occasionally they also eat insects such as locusts and small reptiles such as lizard. Lacking teeth, they swallow small stones that act as gastroliths to grind food in the gizzard, and help the digestion process. It’s no wonder they can’t fly with that extra stone weight! The species in the Nairobi park are the common Masai subspecies with pink/reddish legs, especially in breeding season. The Nairobi National Park has a healthy, thriving ostrich population. Kenya is also one of the few places where the rarer northern (Somali ostrich) subspecies with its blue legs is also found. Struthio is a genus of bird in the order Struthioniformes, whose members are the ostriches. There are two living species, the Common Ostrich and the Somali Ostrich. I find it particularly interesting that the equatorial zone is the seemingly invisible general divide between the two species. The Somali ostrich is mostly found north of the equator, with the exception of the dry Tsavo East conservation area. We always enjoy seeing them when we are in the Meru National Park as well.

Ostriches have the biggest eyes of any land mammal – almost 5 cm across – and three sets of eyelids. The size of their eyes helps them to easily see predators like lions from a long distance. Ostriches have three stomachs. Since they lack teeth, they swallow small stones to grind their food, and an adult ostrich carries nearly one kilogram of pebbles in its stomach. Ostriches can go without drinking for several days, absorbing moisture from the food they eat, but they do enjoy water and will even bath in it if there is enough. As ostriches can’t fly, when threatened they’ll run, and can reach speeds up to about 70 km/h (43mph), covering up to 5 m in a single stride. Their powerful, long legs can be formidable weapons, capable of killing a human or a potential predator with a forward kick. The front of their feet have a long claw-like toe that is an effective weapon when attacking or defending. Ostriches’ wings reach a span of about two metres, and are used in mating displays, to shade chicks, to cover the bare skin of the upper legs to conserve heat. The wings also function as stabilizer “rudders” to give better manoeuvrability when running. Tests have shown that the wings are actively involved in rapid braking, turning, and zigzag manoeuvres. But even with such large wings, due to their heavy bodies, they remain flightless.

Territorial fights between males for a harem of two to seven females, usually last just minutes. What follows is a complex mating ritual consisting of wing beats, poking on the ground, and then the male will violently flap his wings to symbolically clear out a nest in the dirt. The hen runs circles around the cock with lowered wings, and he will swirl his head. She drops to the ground, and mating can commence.

All the hens put their eggs in one basket (the dominant hen’s 3 m-wide nest). The giant eggs are the largest of any living bird, at 15 cm long and weighing as much as two dozen chicken eggs. The eggs are incubated by the dominant female by day (her drab colours blend in with the sand) and by the male at night (his black feathers make him nearly undetectable in the dark). The communal nest may end up containing as many as 60 eggs! Eggs hatch after 35–45 days of incubation, and the male usually defends the chicks and teaches them to feed, although mums and dads cooperate in rearing the young. Fewer than 10% of nests survive the 9-week period of laying and incubation, and of the surviving chicks, only 15% of those survive to 1 year of age. However, among those common ostriches who survive to adulthood, the species is one of the longest living bird species. A Common Ostrich in captivity is recorded to have lived a record 62 years and 7 months, while in the wild their expected lifespan is typically 40–45 years.

Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand! This myth probably began from the bird’s defensive way of lying low at the approach of trouble and pressing themselves to the ground to try to be less visible. Their feathers blend well with sandy soil and, from a distance, they may look like they’ve buried their heads in the sand. The ostrich is farmed commercially around the world for its decorative feathers, its meat and its skin, which is used for leather products. The wild ostrich population has declined drastically in the last 200 years, with most surviving birds in protected game parks or reserves, or on farms. However, it is interesting to watch ostrich when they take regular dust baths to reduce pests such as mites and ticks on their bodies.

As Ostriches are the heaviest bird species in the world, they are also the fastest running bird species in the World. Spend a day in the park, go “birdwatching”, you will be surprised at how many other animals can also be seen, if you slow down to the pace of nature. God has created many wonderful creatures, and the Ostrich is one of them. Hopefully, you will also get to see the biggest bird behaving naturally in a wild habitat.

The biggest bird
Gareth Jones –  A passionate writer & photographer
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