The Ostrich (struthio camelus) is a member of a group of birds known as ratites, that is they are flightless birds without a keel to their breastbone. Of the 8,600 bird species which exist today, the ostrich is the largest. Standing tall on long, bare legs, the Ostrich has a long, curving, predominantly white neck. The humped body of the male is covered in black patches and the wings and tail are tipped with white. The female is brown and white. These huge birds, which sometimes reach a height of 2.6 m and a weight of 135 kg, cannot fly, but are very fast runners.
Ostriches are mainly vegetarian, eating grass, succulents berries and seeds, though they will also eat insects. They swallow large numbers of pebbles which help grind the harder food in the gizzard and aid digestion.
Ostriches normally mate for life, and they share the task of incubating the eggs. Ostriches form bisexual groups with a complex structure. Territorial males compete for flocks of 3 to 5 hens. Mating includes elaborate displays of hisses and dancing. Once divided into mating groups, ostriches in some areas use communal nests to hold anywhere from 14 to 60 eggs. The nest is a hole scraped in bare ground about 1 to 2 feet deep. The average egg is 6 inches in length, 5 inches in width, weighs about 3 pounds, and is shiny and whitish in color. Eggs take approximately 35 - 40 days to hatch.
The male, which has mostly black feathers, sits on the eggs at night, and the drab, brown female who lays up to 20 eggs, covers them during the day. In this way, the nest is much harder to see. If threatened while sitting on the nest, which is simply a cavity scooped in the earth, the hen presses her long neck flat along the ground, blending with the background. Ostriches, contrary to popular belief, do not bury their heads in the sand. Once the young ones hatch, it is usually the male ostrich which looks after the chick until they are old enough to fend for themselves.
The Domesticated Ostrich
Ostriches were almost wiped out in the 18th century due to hunting for feathers. By the middle of the 19th century, due to the extensive practice of ostrich farming the ostrich population increased. The movement changed to domesticating and plucking ostriches, instead of hunting. Ostriches have been succesfully domesticated and are now farmed throughout the world, particularly in South Africa, for meat, feathers and leather. The leather goes through a tanning process and is then manufactured into fashion accessories such as boots and bags.
Most wild ostriches are found in fragmented groups in West, East and South Africa with the majority living in protected game reserves on the east of the continent. They are well adapted to living in dry conditions and are able to survive dehydration of up to 25%.