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Who, in their earliest kindergarten years, does not learn of the ostrich? The ostrich (Family:Spheniscidae, Struthio camelus) is unmistakably the largest bird in the world. Its huge bulk accounts for the inability to fly. Without doubt, it is one of the strangest-looking and best-known African birds. They have long legs, with powerful, nearly naked thighs, a long neck that bears the small flattish head and broad, shallow bill.

The ostrich is the only African member of the ratites. Ratites are a group of large flightless birds. Others include the emu in Australia and the rhea in South America. Ostriches are in a separate order (Struthioniformes) to other birds and is the only member species. This is because they have unique characters, besides being big and heavy. They only have two toes, whereas all other birds possess at least three, usually four.

The sternum does not have a keel, to which flight muscles are ordinarily attached and the wings are small. The feathers on their wings lack barbs. In other birds, the little barbs hook the feathers together to provide a suitable aerodynamic surface. As with many birds the male's plumage is more showy than the female ostriches. The male has black body and white plumes on the wings and tail., while the female is a dull brownish-grey.

The ostrich beats all other birds when it comes to size statistics. The average adult male can reach five feet at the shoulder, nine feet in total height and weigh 345 lbs (157 kg), the hens being smaller. Although their partners are the largest birds, female ostriches have the distinction of laying the largest egg of any living bird. The average egg weighs almost four pounds and measures six inches in diameter and eight inches long. They are buff or straw-colored and very hard and shiny. The ostrich egg takes about forty minutes for boiling being about the same volume as two dozen hen's eggs, . Even though it seems huge, the egg is relatively small for the size of the ostrich- the bigger the bird, the smaller the egg is in proportion to the bird. (A rule which applies to all birds.) Bushmen use the eggs to store caches of water underground.

The ostrich mating system is polygamous. Male ostriches compete with their beaks and powerful kicks. A male will usually mate with three or four females and he excavates a shallow depression in which the female lays her eggs.

Because all his mates lay their eggs in the one nest there may be up to sixty eggs in one nest. So the cock's conspicuous plumage does not give the location of the nest away, he sits on the nest during night time and the hen takes over for the day. To make themselves even less conspicuous the sitting bird will stretch its neck along the ground, occasionally popping its head above the tall grass for a quick look, before popping back down again.

The habit of laying the neck on the ground may be the origin of one of the first tales we learn of ostrich behavior: its mythical propensity to put its head in the ground when danger approaches. In fact even the nickname "ostrich" is used for someone who is unwilling to face unpleasant facts.

However, the ostrich is much better at defending itself than the myth would imply. The powerful feet have sharp claws that can inflict nasty wounds if the ostrich uses its first line of defense, kicking with its long legs.

Lions are said to be major predators of ostriches but the cat rarely catches the bird in this case. A startled ostrich can run at a scorching forty miles per hour and are virtually never caught by lion. Unless caught unawares in the first rush, they can outpace, outlast and outdodge most lions. The main source of ostrich mortality is predation of the eggs and nestlings. All of the major predators may take ostrich chicks and the Egyptian vulture preys on the eggs. Poachers were a serious problem but since ostriches have been successfully domesticated, the price of their gorgeous feathers has dropped, lessening the incentive for poaching the wild population.

If they escape predators, disease and poaching for their feathers, an ostrich can live an incredibly long time for a bird, up to 68 years old!

Ostriches are creatures of dry, open plains, grasslands and savannas. They eat only vegetable matter and seem to be constantly pecking at the ground in search of morsels (perhaps another origin of the head-in-the-sand myth). They can do without water for days but enjoy drinking and bathing. During the dry season, up to 600 have been seen at a single water hole.

Ostriches are common throughout East Africa. There are two sub-species. The Masai ostrich (S. c. masaicus) is found in southern Kenya, north to the Tana river. The other ostrich, the Somali or Blue-shanked (S. c. molybdophanes), is found in bush country in northeastern Kenya, especially around Samburu. The two sub-species are distinguished by the coloring of the skin coloring of the males neck and legs. In the Masai, they are pinkish, whereas in the Somali, they are bluish-grey.


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