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Ostriches are one of the largest birds in the world.
Ostrich birds look like unusual chimeras bred in a lab. When the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about the ostrich, he didn't know whether to classify it as a bird or a mammal. But in fact, ostriches belong to the kind of flightless birds that are very suitable for living on the ground. Years of hunting nearly brought them to the brink of extinction, but numbers have recovered enough that ostriches now roam the African plains again.
5 Unbelievable Ostrich Facts!
- The eyes of an ostrich are about 2 inches wide, the largest of any land animal known in the world.
- An even more unusual fact is that the ostrich is the only bird with two toes. There are three or four of each other type of bird.
- Ostriches were once hunted or farmed in large numbers for their feathers, dating back to ancient Egypt, Babylon and Assyria. These feathers were used by royalty, high society women, and even medieval knights. By 1913, as hunting subsided, the farm was home to more than 1 million ostriches. But the decline in popularity of ostrich feathers has led to the decline of the farm.
- The earliest ostrich fossils date from about 20 to 25 million years ago. By about 12 million years ago, ostrich birds had evolved to their known larger sizes. This is also the time when they started leaving Africa for other parts of Eurasia. All of these non-African species are now extinct.
- Ostriches are animals with multiple stomachs! Since ostriches have no teeth and swallow their food whole, they have three stomachs and a very long intestine to aid in digestion. Ostriches swallow stones that grind up their food in their stomachs, some with over two pounds of stones in their bodies!
The scientific name of the ostrich genus is Struthio . This is derived from the ancient Greek names for ostriches and sparrows. Until the 21st century, taxonomists discovered only one living ostrich: Struthio camelus , also known simply as the common ostrich (camelus, as you might expect, is the Greek word for camel, probably for its ability to go without water for long periods of time. named).
The Somali ostrich, Maasai ostrich, South African ostrich, and North African ostrich are all considered subspecies of the common ostrich. But then taxonomists decided that there were enough differences between the common ostrich and the Somali ostrich (also known as the blue-necked ostrich) that it warranted classifying the latter as a separate species, Struthio molybdophanes .
The ostrich is an example of the ratite: a large flightless bird that is distantly related to the kiwi, emu, and titan. It was once assumed that the ratites belonged to a single order. However, genetic analysis revealed that these birds had different evolutionary lineages, so they were placed in a different order entirely. The ostrich is now the only extant member of its family and order.
Ostrich and Emu
Despite their similar appearance, emus belong to a separate order, Casuariiformes. These Australian birds are smaller than ostriches. They are more likely to eat meat. They have three toes instead of two. But they do share several traits, including featherless necks, long claws, flightless wings, polygamous mating behavior, and strong legs capable of running fast. They are an example of convergent evolution: Two separate lineages evolve similar traits in response to the same environmental stress.
An interesting feature that the ostrich developed during its evolution is that it has two toes, whereas most birds have four. The ratite's two-toed structure helps the ostrich run at high speed. Ostriches are believed to have evolved in the steppes of Central Asia before spreading to Africa 20 million years ago. Their ancestors inhabited much of the northern hemisphere during the early Cenozoic Era, 40 million years ago.
Little is known about their early ancestors, or why the birds developed such large sizes. In fact, their closest relative is the kiwi bird, which is native to New Zealand. It has been speculated that early kiwis may have been able to fly, which would explain why they were so distant from their much larger relatives.
Types of ostriches
There are two types of ostriches in existence, and the common ostrich has several subspecies:
- Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus) – Native to most of Africa. Subspecies include: Masai ostrich (pink-skinned species also known as East African ostrich), main name ostrich (red-necked or Barbary ostrich), South African ostrich (black-necked or Cape ostrich) and Arabian ostrich (Syrian or Middle Eastern ) Oriental ostrich, now extinct). The common ostrich grazes mainly on open savannahs.
- Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes) – Native to the Horn of Africa. Common name: Blue-necked ostrich. The skin and neck of this species are blue. It prefers denser, more densely vegetated areas where it forages rather than grazes.
Ostriches are large and easily distinguished from all other birds. Male ostriches are clad in soft black and white plumage, stand up to 9 feet tall and weigh up to 320 pounds. Females are much smaller at 6 feet and 242 pounds. She and her chicks display more grey-brown plumage around the main body. Regardless of sex, ostriches have long, strong necks, heads, and legs that are almost completely bare except for a small layer of down. The skin is pink or gray, but the exact color and pattern may vary by subspecies.
Given the size of the ostrich, it's no surprise that the wings are completely flightless. Evidence suggests that wings (along with tails) help birds maintain balance and court females. Very soft feathers, which lack the water resistance of many other birds, hang down from the body.
Ostriches are a social species, congregating in flocks of 5 to 50 birds during the breeding season and in small flocks of 2 to 5 the rest of the year. These flocks are often seen in the company of other herbivores such as antelope and zebra. However, this tolerance of other species does not necessarily extend to different flocks, as these birds ferociously defend their territories from foreign invaders. Unlike the rich vocals of many other birds, ostriches can only make loud roars and high-pitched hisses, which males often use to intimidate each other.
These birds graze and forage almost all day, and food is plentiful on the African savannah. Although they can go without water for long periods of time, ostriches seem to have a strong affinity for large bodies of water, where they will frequently bathe to clean themselves.
Contrary to popular myth, ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand when threatened, but they lay their heads and necks flat on the ground, perhaps to avoid detection. Their first instinct is always to run or avoid danger, but that doesn't mean the bird lacks defenses. Ostriches have a rather ferocious clawed foot that can kill predators as big as a lion.
These birds inhabit savannas, woodlands and deserts in Africa. It is endemic to a large swath of land between West Africa and the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa. Savannas sometimes provide hiding places for ostriches. But whenever the undergrowth is sparse, the bird relies mostly on its speed and resourcefulness to evade predators.
These birds prefer an omnivorous diet that eats lots of plant material. To squeeze out as much nutrition as possible, the bird's gut is about 46 feet long. It consumes stones and sand along with its food, then grinds it all up in specialized organs called gizzards. These birds can also survive for days without a drop of water. It can lose up to a quarter of its body weight in water before needing to drink again.
What do ostriches eat?
The bird's diet consists of seeds, grasses, fruits and flowers. It sometimes supplements other meat left by insects, reptiles, or predators. For a full breakdown of their diet, check out our "What do ostriches eat?" page and read!
Predators and Threats
The greatest threat to these birds is human hunting. The urge to gather feathers nearly wiped out the ostrich in the 18th century. As ostrich farming became more common, the practice lost some of its appeal. However, hunting, habitat loss and even predation still pose some risks to ostriches.
What do ostriches eat?
Despite its size, the bird is threatened by a variety of predators, including lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and African hunting dogs. Vultures, warthogs, and mongooses also raid nests for their eggs. With the exception of the cheetah, most predators can't keep up with the ostrich's incredible speed, so they lay in wait to ambush the unsuspecting bird.
Reproduction, Babies and Longevity
The breeding season lasts between March and September each year. The male performs an elaborate dance in which he appears to bend over and shake his feathers, first one wing, then the other, while his tail bobs up and down. The dance is intended to demonstrate the strength and fitness of men for women to judge. The most territorial male will mate with three to five hens at a time, but he will only form a pair with the most dominant hen. Other males will also have the opportunity to mate with the remaining females.
All fertilized females will dump their eggs together into a communal nest (consisting of a simple hole dug in the ground). The dominant hen lays her eggs in the center, giving them the best chance of survival, but all eggs have a better chance of survival than if hatched in separate nests. Each female can lay 7 to 10 eggs at a time, but the communal nest can hold a total of 60 eggs. Weighing over 3 pounds, these eggs are the largest of any species on Earth. They are almost as big as dinosaur eggs. Males and females take turns guarding the nest. The females of the group look after it during the day, while the males take over at night.
After an incubation period of 42 to 46 days, the chicks emerge from the eggs with firm fluff and are about the size of a chicken. After leaving the nest, the parents take the chicks under their wings to protect them from the harsh sun or rain. When threatened, males will try to distract predators by shouting and sticking out their necks, while females and chicks try to take cover.
Juveniles grow rapidly, and by about six months they are almost as large as adults. They will reach sexual maturity after three to four years, which is a relatively long time compared to most birds. The normal lifespan of these birds is about 30 to 40 years in the wild and about 50 years in captivity.
The IUCN Red List considers the common ostrich a species of least concern, while the Somali ostrich is at risk of extinction. Populations of both species appear to be declining slightly, with no more than 150,000 ostriches estimated to be left in the wild. The Arabian ostrich (a subspecies of the common ostrich) became extinct in the 20th century as the development of motor vehicles made them easier to hunt.
ostrich in the zoo
These birds are one of the most popular zoo exhibits in the United States. It can be found at the North Carolina Zoo, Detroit Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Atlanta Zoo, Maryland Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Reed Park Zoo in Tucson, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Hogle Zoo in Utah, St. Louis Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, Indiana Polis Zoo, Houston Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, and pretty much every major zoo in the country.
More about ostriches
- Are ostriches dangerous?
- Ostrich Poop: Everything You Needed to Know
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about the author
Abby Parks is the author of novels, plays, short stories, poems and lyrics. She has recorded two albums of her original songs and is a multi-instrumentalist. She manages a folk music website and writes about singer-songwriters, folk bands, and other music-related articles. She is also a radio DJ for folk music shows. As well as being a pet parent to rabbits, birds, dogs and cats, Abby enjoys hunting for animals in the wild and has witnessed some of the more exotic ones such as Puffins in the Farne Islands, Puffins in Chiloe Southern Pudu (Chile), penguins in the wild, and countless wildlife of the Rocky Mountains (bighorn sheep, goats, moose, elk, marmots, beavers).
Ostrich FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are ostriches herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores?
Ostriches are omnivores, which means they eat both plants and other animals.
To which kingdom does the ostrich belong?
Ostriches belong to the animal kingdom.
What phylum do ostriches belong to?
Ostriches belong to the phylum Chordate.
What kind of ostrich is it?
Ostriches belong to the class of birds.
What family do ostriches belong to?
Ostriches belong to the Ostrichidae family.
What order do ostriches belong to?
Ostriches belong to the order Ostriches.
What genus does the ostrich belong to?
Ostriches belong to the genus Ostrich.
What type of mulch do ostriches have?
Ostriches are covered with feathers.
What type of habitat do ostriches live in?
Ostriches live in desert and savannah areas.
What are the distinctive features of an ostrich?
Ostriches have small wings, a long neck and long legs.
What do ostriches eat?
Ostriches eat seeds, grasses, fruits, flowers, insects, and even reptiles.
Do ostriches migrate?
No, ostriches stay in the same area year round.
How many eggs did the ostrich lay?
A female ostrich can lay 7 to 10 eggs in a clutch. Even though each egg weighs over 3 pounds, one of the more amazing facts is that her body is large enough to carry even more eggs.
How fast does an ostrich fly?
Ostriches cannot fly at all.
What is the wingspan of an ostrich?
An ostrich has a wingspan of about 6.6 feet. The ratio of wingspan to body length isn't particularly special for a bird, given its overall size.
When do baby ostriches leave the nest?
Baby ostriches leave the nest a few days after hatching. They are perfectly ready to follow their parents and start foraging.
What is the scientific name of the ostrich?
The scientific name of the ostrich is Struthio Camelus.
What is the lifespan of an ostrich?
Ostriches can live 50 to 70 years.
How fast is an ostrich?
Ostriches can travel as fast as 42 miles per hour.
How do ostriches give birth?
Ostriches lay eggs.
How do ostriches compare to rias?
When distinguishing between an ostrich and a rhea, you need to consider some key differences. First, ostriches live in Africa, while rheas live in South America. Second, ostriches are much larger than rheas and can reach twice the height. Third, rheas have three toes while ostriches have two.
What is the main difference between an ostrich and a cassowary?
The main differences between cassowaries and ostriches are size, appearance, range of motion, and social structure.
What's the Difference Between an Ostrich Skeleton and a Tyrannosaurus Rex Skeleton?
Ostriches have more hollow bones than T. rex, although T. rex has some. Also, compared to ostriches, T. rex's legs and walking stride were surprisingly similar.
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- San Diego Zoo, available here: https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/ostrich
- Animal Diversity website, available here: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Struthio_camelus/
- African Wildlife Foundation, available here: https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/ostrich
- Mental Floss, available here: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/586414/emu-vs-ostrich-what-is-difference