July 10, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Many of today’s visitors to Elitch Gardens have no idea that Mary Elitch Long had a pet ostrich (which I couldn’t resist adding into the storyline of Escaping Yesterday). Mary harness-trained the animal and had a small two-wheeled cart built which she drove around the Gardens and throughout the Highlands neighborhood.
Ostriches are native to central and southern Africa, living in savanna and desert habitats. The world’s largest birds, they grow to a height of seven to nine feet and can weigh between 220 and 350 pounds. According to researchers, the flightless bird once roamed across Asia, greater Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. They get most of their water from the plants they eat and were once known as the “camel bird” both for their ability to survive in dry climates and their appearance (long neck, prominent eyes, sweeping eyelashes, and jolting walk).
The ostrich is the only bird to have two toes on each foot (all others have three or four). They have long, powerful legs and round bodies. Males have black and white feathering while females are light brown. Their eyes are two inches in diameter. Their average life span in the wild is between thirty and forty years.
Ostriches are flightless. Instead, they are incredibly powerful runners, capable of short sprints at 43 MPH and long-distance runs of 31 MPH. Their two-toed feet assist them in running—the larger inner toenail resembles a hoof while the other toe has a long, sharp claw. Though their legs are thin and appear spindly, their bodies are perfectly aligned so that their centers of gravity are on top of the legs. The length and shape of the legs provide maneuverability in addition to speed while their wings (with a span of about six to seven feet) provide balance and act as rudders to allow them to change direction quickly.
The birds gain their running skills early. At just one month of age, a chick can already reach speeds of 35 MPH. They soon achieve their adult pace of 10-16 feet per single stride (compare that to the size of your bedroom). Most ostriches use their speed to flee predators but their legs can also be used as weapons. When threatened and flight is not an option, ostriches fight with their feet. They kick forward, using the force from their knee joint and length of their legs. Between this force and the long, sharp claw on the foot, a single kick can kill a lion (or a human) if delivered straight-on with full power.
Ostriches in the wild typically live in small herds or flocks of less than a dozen though they may spend winter months in pairs. On occasion, as a defense mechanism, they combine smaller herds into a group of 100 or more. During mating season, they may also assemble into larger groups. In drought situations, several small herds may group with grazing animals such as antelope or zebras.
Herds are dominated by alpha males (roosters or cocks) and groups of two to seven females (hens). The males mate with the dominant female (main hen) in the group, sometimes with others. Lesser hens are also mated by wandering males outside of the herd. Dominance is relayed by a proud stance, with head up, and lifting of the wings and tail feathers. Submission is shown by the drooping of head, wings, and tail. Fights among males for dominance usually last a few minutes but can result in severe injury or death as a result of head slams.
Mating rituals are elaborate. The black and white male bows to the female, sinking to the ground in front of her then begins to alternately wave the feathers of each wing while moving his tail feathers up and down in a display of his plumage. The cock begins pecking at the ground and violently flaps his wings to symbolize clearing a nest. Once the hen is duly impressed, the rooster rises and stamps towards her with his wings spread. His beak and shins, sometimes his neck, turn bright red. If the hen accepts his suit, her feathers turn silver and she runs around him with her wings lowered. The cock’s neck can literally wrap around itself as he watches her. Finally, she will drop to the ground and wait for him to mount.
Ostrich eggs are laid in a common nest—a shallow depression up to nine feet in diameter—with the main hen laying hers in the center for greatest chance of survival. The alpha male and dominant female take turns incubating all of the eggs. The female takes the day shift when her drab coloring blends in with the ground while he takes sits at night when his black feathers match the darkness. The eggs average six inches long, five inches across, and weigh about three pounds. A hen lays seven to ten eggs at a time. The average ostrich can incubate a dozen or more at a time. Eggs hatch about 35 to 45 days after being laid.
Newly hatched chicks are small relative to their adult size. At first the size of barnyard chicks, they grow rapidly—about a foot per month. At six months, they are nearly adult size. The dominant male and female share the task of tending the chicks. Babies are covered by a stiff, spikey down with adult plumage appearing around four months of age. Male coloring appears in year three or four, when sexual maturity is achieved. Chicks leave the communal nest within days of hatching to travel with the herd and adults shelter them under their wings. When chicks are threatened, adult males create a distraction while the chicks scatter. Sometimes, family groups may challenge one another with winning herds adopting the chicks from the other group. Nurseries of up to 300 chicks have been noted.
Ostriches make a variety of sounds from whistles to snorts and guttural noises. Their most common sound is a type of hissing cackle produced when feeding, which can sound like a cat hiss when the animal is defending its territory. They may, however, produce a deep hoarse sound referred to as “lowing” which some liken to a cow mooing. Lowing often occurs at night or when the ostrich is approached by a human or during mating. When threatened, the male produces a loud roar. This is called “booming” and has been likened to the roar of a lion. An ostrich may boom just before attacking with a kick. Both lowing and booming can be very loud, heard for miles in the wild.
Here are a few links to sites with video and sound clips: http://www.junglewalk.com/sound/Ostriches-sounds.htm; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kYiJAwVbEs; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xukd1LOgg4U. This video shows mating behavior as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXBasP7HoVM. A full length documentary can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOcPuHLRUFw.
Ostriches are omnivores, typically eating leaves, roots, and seeds but sometimes eating insects, snakes, lizards, and small rodents. Because they don’t have teeth, they swallow small stones, pebbles, and sand to break up what they’ve eaten. They swallow food in lumps that collect at the top of the throat. Once the lump slides down the throat, it enters the gizzard where it is crushed and torn apart by the stones and sand. They also have three stomachs and their intestinal tract is 46 feet long so that it can adequately absorb nutrients. Though they can go days without drinking water and generally absorb all the water needed from the plants they eat, they enjoy bathing in water holes and will drink when water is available. Their bodies carefully regulate temperature to avoid excess loss of water.
The eye of an ostrich measures almost two inches in diameter (larger than the eye of any land animal) and is larger than their brain. This allows them to have keen eyesight and quickly take note of approaching danger.
Ostrich feathers are soft, loose, and smooth. Because they do not hook together as do feathers of other birds, ostriches look shaggy. The ostrich also lacks the gland that allows other birds to waterproof their feathers when preening so their feathers droop when wet.
The only known egg bigger than those of the ostrich is the dinosaur egg. One ostrich egg weighs the same as about 24 chicken eggs. Despite the large size of the eggs, they are small in comparison to the size of an adult ostrich. It takes 42-60 days for an egg to hatch and baby ostriches are the size of chickens. They reach adult height by six months but do not gain full maturity for three or four years.
The ostrich also differs from other birds in that it secretes urine separately from feces and has a retractable copulatory organ (which extends to about eight inches).
Ostriches have always fascinated people. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, they have been a focus of attention for 5000 years. In some African countries, ostrich races are held with specially designed saddles, reins, and bits.
Mary Elitch Long’s pet ostrich pulled a specially built cart and was a highlight for children visiting Elitch’s Gardens. Unfortunately, while Mary was away from Denver, several bicycle salesmen stopped at the park and fed the ostrich celluloid buttons to test the theory that ostriches could digest anything. The bird died seven days later. It was later discovered that the wire pins that held the buttons on the display cards had attached to the lining of the ostrich’s stomach.
Today, ostriches are farmed throughout the world for their decorative feathers, their meat, and their skin. Population in the wild has declined sharply in the past 200 year with most of the population now within game reserves. While not endangered, the ostrich is classified as a vulnerable species.
And what about ostriches burying their heads in the sand? Not true! The myth arose from the bird’s defensive actions. If running is not an option, an ostrich will flop to the ground, and stretch its head and neck flat on the ground. Because their coloring blends with the sandy soil, it appears their head is buried in the sand.