The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is either one or two species of large flightless birds native to Africa, the only living member(s) of the genus Struthio, which is in the ratite family. Some analyses indicate that the Somali ostrich may be better considered a full species separate from the Common Ostrich, but most taxonomists consider it to be a subspecies.
The ostrich shares the order Struthioniformes with the kiwis, emus, rheas, and cassowaries. However, phylogenetic studies have shown that it is the basal extant member of Palaeognathae and is thus equally closely related to flighted tinamous. It is distinctive in its appearance, with a long neck and legs, and can run at up to about 70 km/h (43 mph), the fastest land speed of any bird. The ostrich is the largest living species of bird and lays the largest eggs of any living bird (extinct elephant birds of Madagascar and the giant moa of New Zealand laid larger eggs).
The ostrich’s diet consists mainly of plant matter, though it also eats invertebrates. It lives in nomadic groups of 5 to 50 birds. When threatened, the ostrich will either hide itself by lying flat against the ground, or run away. If cornered, it can attack with a kick of its powerful legs. Mating patterns differ by geographical region, but territorial males fight for a harem of two to seven females.
Ostriches usually weigh from 63 to 145 kilograms (139–320 lb), Ostriches of the East African race (S. c. massaicus) averaged 115 kg (254 lb) in males and 100 kg (220 lb) in females, while the nominate subspecies (S. c. camelus) was found to average 111 kg (245 lb) in unsexed adults. Exceptional male ostriches (in the nominate subspecies) can weigh up to 156.8 kg (346 lb). At sexual maturity (two to four years), male ostriches can be from 2.1 to 2.8 m (6 ft 11 in to 9 ft 2 in) in height, while female ostriches range from 1.7 to 2 m (5 ft 7 in to 6 ft 7 in) tall. New chicks are fawn in colour, with dark brown spots. During the first year of life, chicks grow at about 25 cm (9.8 in) per month. At one year of age, ostriches weigh approximately 45 kilograms (99 lb). Their lifespan is up to 40–45 years.
The feathers of adult males are mostly black, with white primaries and a white tail. However, the tail of one subspecies is buff. Females and young males are greyish-brown and white. The head and neck of both male and female ostriches is nearly bare, with a thin layer of down. The skin of the female’s neck and thighs is pinkish gray, while the male’s is blue-gray, gray or pink dependent on subspecies.
Behaviour and ecology
Ostriches normally spend the winter months in pairs or alone. Only 16 percent of ostrich sightings were of more than two birds. During breeding season and sometimes during extreme rainless periods ostriches live in nomadic groups of five to 100 birds (led by a top hen) that often travel together with other grazing animals, such as zebras or antelopes. Ostriches are diurnal, but may be active on moonlit nights. They are most active early and late in the day. The male ostrich territory is between 2 and 20 km2 (0.77 and 7.72 sq mi).
They mainly feed on seeds, shrubs, grass, fruit and flowers; occasionally they also eat insects such as locusts. Lacking teeth, they swallow pebbles that act as gastroliths to grind food in the gizzard. When eating, they will fill their gullet with food, which is in turn passed down their esophagus in the form of a ball called a bolus.
Ostriches become sexually mature when they are 2 to 4 years old; females mature about six months earlier than males. As with other birds, an individual may reproduce several times over its lifetime. The mating season begins in March or April and ends sometime before September. The mating process differs in different geographical regions.
The ostrich is farmed around the world, particularly for its feathers, which are decorative and are also used as feather dusters. Its skin is used for leather products and its meat is marketed commercially.