11 Compelling Ostrich Facts

Male ostrich standing in Serengeti National Park.

Hal Beral / Getty Images

Ostriches are large, flightless birds with long, muscular legs, a round body, and a small head. Residents of sub-Saharan Africa, these unique birds are not only the largest in the world, but also the fastest. What’s more, their unique adaptations to life in the savanna make them incredibly intriguing. To help you learn more about these fascinating birds, we identified some of the most surprising facts about ostriches.

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Ostriches Are the World’s Largest Bird

Towering over other birds, ostriches can grow up to nine feet tall, with their necks accounting for almost half that height. Male birds can weigh more than 330 pounds, while females are slightly smaller and top out around 320 pounds. And, while ostriches have large, round bodies, their heads are much smaller, with a short, wide bill. 

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An Ostrich’s Eyelashes Protect It From Sand Storms

Close up of ostrich eye.

taviphoto / Getty Images

One of an ostrich’s more famous characteristics, its long, thick eyelashes are actually an adaptation in response to risks associated with sandstorms. Because ostriches live in a semi-arid habitat, sand and dust storms are common and can cause damage to animals’ vision and, sometimes, respiratory systems. The ostrich’s eyelashes can help limit this damage. 

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They Can Sprint Faster Than 45 Miles per Hour

With the help of their long, muscular legs, ostriches can sprint over 45 miles per hour when frightened or fleeing a predator. On average, the birds can run at sustained speeds of about 31 miles per hour. Their legs are so long, in fact, that a single stride can span between 10 and 16 feet. In addition to their legs, ostriches can run faster because they have two toes — instead of the three to four toes that most birds have — one of which acts as a hoof that increases speed.

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Ostrich Eggs Are the Largest of Any Bird

Close up of ostrich eggs in shallow nest.

aaaaimages / Getty Images 

In addition to being the largest bird on Earth, ostriches also have the largest eggs of any bird. Their eggs — which have thick, glossy, cream-colored shells — have a diameter of about 6 inches and weigh up to 3 pounds. That said, their eggs are actually the smallest relative to the size of the birds. The incubation period of an ostrich egg is between 35 and 45 days, but despite this short period of time, less than 10% of nests survive this long.

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Ostriches Don’t Have Teeth

Like other modern birds, ostriches don’t have teeth. However, because they are omnivores, they eat everything from roots, plants, and seeds, to lizards and insects. To digest their broad diet, ostriches have to swallow grit and rocks to help break down food. This unique digestion is further assisted by a number of other adaptations, including three stomachs and intestines that stretch about 46 feet in length.

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They Can Survive Up to Two Weeks Without Water

Like many other animals that live in the savanna, ostriches can go several days without drinking water. Ostriches do drink from watering holes when they’re available, but they can get most of their water from the food they eat. They are also able to survive without water because of an ability to raise their body temperature and limit water loss. Finally, unlike other birds, ostrich urine is secreted separately from their feces, which allows them to conserve water.  

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The Wingspan of an Ostrich Is Over Six Feet

Ostrich with wings outspread.

Manoj Shah / Getty Images 

Though flightless, ostriches have a wingspan of up to 6.6 feet. Rather than aiding in flight, these appendages help the birds maintain their balance when they are running or defending themselves against predators. They can also act as rudders of sorts so the ostriches can shift directions when running. Finally, wings help ostriches during their courtship displays, which involve chasing each other and dancing to assert their dominance over other potential mates.

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Ostriches Can Kill Humans With Just a Kick

In addition to sprinting away from threats, ostriches can use their long, strong legs to kick their predators. Unlike some animals that can kick their back legs, ostriches have to strike with a forward kick to maintain their stability. This results in a powerful impact that can cause serious injury — or even death — to humans and lions alike. 

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They Don’t Actually Bury Their Heads in the Sand

Three ostriches with their heads down.

Angelika / Getty Images 

Contrary to popular belief, ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand to avoid predators. In fact, they don't bury their heads at all. The confusion stems from the ostrich’s nesting behavior, which involves digging shallow holes in the sand, rather than building nests. Because their eggs need to be rotated multiple times each day, ostriches are often observed with their heads down — so it appears that they are in the sand. Likewise, ostriches rely on a number of food sources on the ground, so their feeding activity may also be confused for burying their heads. 

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Ostriches Live in the Savannas and Woodlands of Africa

Though their geographic range previously extended into Asia, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula, ostriches are now limited to Africa’s plains and woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa. This reduction in habitat is largely related to extensive hunting that has slashed their numbers — though the common ostrich is still deemed a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

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The Somali Ostrich Was Recently Identified as a Second Species

Kissing Ostriches - Somali Ostrich, Struthio molubdophanes, Buffalo Springs, Kenya
Female and male Somali ostriches. SoopySue / Getty Images

The Somali ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes) was described as a distinct species in 2014; previously it had been included as a subspecies of the common ostrich (Struthio camelus).

Native to northeastern Africa, male Somali ostriches have a distinctive blue skin tone in their neck and legs. This animal is hunted for its feathers, skin, and meat, and habitat loss further threatens its survival. Its eggs are also sought by poachers to be used for food and as ornaments, water containers, and protective charms. The Somali ostrich is categorized as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.

Save the Somali Ostrich

  • Ostrich eggs and meat are considered a delicacy in many upscale restaurants and markets. If sustainable sourcing cannot be guaranteed, avoid consuming ostrich eggs.
  • Help support conservation tourism. If traveling to Africa or ostrich habitats, avoid engaging in hunting or invasive activities; discourage tourism that is not respectful and protective of the environment.
  • Support conservation organizations like the African Wildlife Foundation, which aims to protect habitats, educate communities, promote sustainable tourism, and limit the demand for and trafficking of vulnerable animals.
View Article Sources
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