These enormous birds, usually taller than a human, live in the deserts and savannas of Africa. They are the tallest, largest, and heaviest birds alive, and one of the most unique. Their relatively small head features the largest eyes (5 cm in diameter) of any land animal, protected by their long black lashes. A male has bold black-and-white markings that are used to attract females, while females are light brown. Ostriches have rather prehistoric-looking feet, and are the only birds with only two toes on each foot. The inner one is thick and strong, and is adapted for running. It has a formidable claw, 10 cm long, which may be used in defense.
Ostriches live in the wild in western and eastern Africa, as well as South Africa. Once they roamed all over Africa, Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. Now, due to being hunted so extensively, they are found only in sub-Saharan Africa. Ostriches farmed in Australia, New Mexico and Israel have established feral populations. These birds inhabit a range of semi-arid plains, from savanna to desert, as well as areas of open woodland.
Ostriches live in flocks numbering 5 to 50, and are normally found alongside grazing animals such as antelope and zebras. During the breeding season, of about 5 months, flocks will occupy territories extending 2-15 sq km. Outside the breeding season, smaller, looser flocks of 2-5 members form. Ostriches have a lifestyle which is nomadic and mostly diurnal, being active early in the day as well as late. Males are territorial, defending their territory aggressively. These birds like water and frequently take baths, if given the opportunity, and are good swimmers. Sometimes, to escape detection, they lie down with their necks outstretched, which probably was the origin of the myth that an ostrich buries its head in the sand. They use posture to threaten a rival or predator, fluffing up the feathers of their wings and hissing loudly. These birds are fast runners and usually will comfortably outrun their predators. Ostriches are very vocal, and their sounds include whistling, booming, snorting and hissing.
Ostriches are polygynous, each male having three to five hens, with a “major” hen and several “minor” hens. Dominant males defend their territory and mate with their major hen and other hens within the area. The major hen is given more careful consideration, getting first choice of nesting ground. She lays her eggs first, then allows the others in the flock to produce theirs. The major hen will know which are her eggs and protects her clutch by pushing away other hens’ eggs. The mating season starts in March or April, running until September. The male will scrape out a nest, which is just a depression in the ground, then attracts the hens by dancing, fluffing up his feathers and flapping his wings, as well as swinging his head while going down on his knees. Females lay 2 to 11 creamy eggs in the communal nest. Only dominant male and major female guard the nest. The eggs are incubated for about 6 weeks. The female is on the nest during daylight hours, and the male at night. Within the first three days the chicks leave the nest. They fledge when they are 4 to 5 months old, and by about 18 months they are fully grown, reaching maturity at 2 to 4 years.
Although not considered globally threatened and still relatively abundant, in recent times, ostrich numbers have decreased, as has their range. Their feathers and eggs have been used by humans for a long time, almost causing their extermination in northern and southern Africa. Overgrazing has caused habitat destruction and greatly reduced their range, this currently being the main threat.
According to the Animal-Corner resource, the total population size of the ostrich is around 2 million individuals worldwide. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List, but its numbers today are decreasing.