Friday, March 20, 2009

An Ostrich Story

I'm an ostrich hatchling, about the size of a big hen, but will eventually grow to an impressive height of about 2.6m - because an ostrich is the largest living bird on earth! We might not be able to fly, but "at full throttle" can reach a speed of up to 70km/hr. You'll find us distributed in West, East and southern Africa, where our habitat is low rainfall areas.

An ostrich nest is simply a hole scraped in bare ground, and an average egg weighs about 1.4kg and takes about 35-45 days to hatch. During the night, the ostrich male shares breeding "duties" with the female, whilst the female sits on the eggs during the day. You want to know why? Then check out the next photo.

Can you see? The male has mostly black feathers, whilst the female is brown = well-camouflaged during the day. Ostrich couples not only share incubating the eggs, but in nature, they also mate for life. Have you also heard the expression that ostriches "bury their heads in the sand"? Well, that's NOT true. If they feel threatened whilst sitting on a nest, ostriches only tend to press their necks and heads flat on the ground.

In nature, the male defends the hatchlings and also teaches us youngsters how and what to eat. A fully grown ostrich has a wingspan of 2m or more, which are "brought into play" during mating displays, but also, to provide shade for tiny chicks like me. Although they differ in colour, both males and females have bare necks and thighs. Since I confirmed that it's not true that ostriches bury their heads in the sand, it IS true that throughout our life we swallow large numbers of pebbles. That helps with the digestion, because in our gizzards, the stones help to grind the harder food we eat. Eventually, an adult ostrich carries approx 1kg of stones in its stomach.

Talking about food - ostriches are mainly vegetarians but occasionally, we like to nibble on insects. We can go without water for days, but when water is freely available, we enjoy "a drink" and frequently take baths. Other than having long necks, small heads, large eyes, long + powerful legs, we only have 2 toes on each foot - that certainly distinguishes us from other birds, which mostly have 4 toes on each foot.

Now let me introduce you to other members of my family. Hatchlings normally are fawn in colour with dark brown spots but sometimes, by a fluke of nature, some chicks are more white in colour than brown. We don't notice colour, but hear when humans remark about the unusual shading.

Then again, on other occasions, instead of white, there are black chicks amongst us. Until we are over a year old, one can't (generally) distinguish who is male or female, because until then, we are all brown - or all look like females. The males only start to "discolour" when we are becoming sexually mature - so seeing a black chick amongst us is as unusual as a white one.

Now to some family "portraits" - cute or ugly? You be the judge.

I did mention we liked water, right? But what this family member is trying to accomplish, beats me! Perhaps it's vain and is using the water surface like a mirror? But does it realise that by stretching its neck it tends to loose its resemblance as an ostrich?

Now this "specimen" is taking things a bit too far and out of shame, I do feel like "burying my head in sand". It seems to have lost its "bite" - pardon the pun - because ostriches don't have teeth!!

Did you know that once, ostrich feathers were considered a fashion necessity amongst ladies as far afield as London, Paris + New York? The feather boom began in the 1870's and lasted until the first World War started. Then, fashion houses changed their designs to fit the "austerity" of war - and the demand for ostrich feathers was "no more". Whilst the boom lasted, great mansions were built but eventually, many owners lost their fortune.

From 1826-1867, ostriches were hunted for their feathers. Then it became an industry (us 'birds' were domesticated), so now, you not only find us in game reserves, but can also get to know us "close & personal" on any of various commercial breeding farms, esp. in the Oudtshoorn district of the Klein Karoo. Now we are farmed not only for our feathers, but mainly for our leather and meat. Ostrich meat looks like beef but is low in fat + cholesterol, and high in calcium, protein + iron.

Did you know that in 1903, the original ostrich feather dusters were invented by (missionary + broom factory manager) Harry Beckner in (wait for it.....) Johannesburg!

Last but not least - let me introduce you to a distant cousin, the emu. This grey-brown bird with a shaggy appearance is the largest bird native to Australia, and has 3 toes on each foot. It's also a flightless bird and also tends to swallow pebbles to assist in the digestion of plant material. Whilst we ostriches are "famous" for our feathers, the emu, in contrast, is farmed for its meat, leather + oil (the latter from fat, which is used for cosmetics, dietary supplements + therapeutic products).

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