Read an Excerpt
100 of the World's Most Notable Birds
A fleeing Ostrich can cover 100 yards in just five seconds, about half the time of an Olympic sprinter, making it the fastest creature on two legs
The world's largest living bird is something of an anomaly in the avian world: a primitive, flightless giant with a kick like a mule, the largest eyes of any land-dwelling creature (it is beaten only by the giant squid of the ocean depths), and eyelashes that would put a catwalk model to shame.
The statistics of this super-heavyweight are true record-breakers: it is the world's tallest bird, reaching a height of up to 8 feet; and the heaviest, weighing as much as 300 pounds. The Ostrich dwarfs all but its closest relatives: the South American rheas, and the cassowaries and Emu of Australasia.
The Ostrich also lays the largest egg of any living bird—at 3.3 pounds it is the rough equivalent of two-dozen chickens' eggs, and takes 45 minutes to boil. Yet because of the huge size of the bird itself, the egg represents less than 1.5 percent of the adult's body-weight—making it relatively smaller than the egg of any other bird.
Today the Ostrich is confined to Africa south of the Sahara, but until the middle of the 20th century a tiny relict population hung on in the deserts of Arabia. Unfortunately the toll taken by hunting meant that, when conservation efforts were made to save this unique subspecies, it was too late. Attempts are now being made to reintroduce the Ostrich to parts of the Middle East, though, with thatregion's history of conflict, the chances of it surviving there may not be great.
The Ostrich is a textbook example of the benefits of flightlessness. By staying earthbound, the species has been able to massively increase both its size and its weight—in the case of the latter to about ten times that of the largest flying birds. Its huge, muscular legs enable it to foil any attack with a well placed kick and, if all else fails, to run away at speeds of up to 45 miles an hour. Another weapon against predators is its extraordinary eyesight.
With such an armory of ways of avoiding attack, burying its head in the sand would appear to go against common sense; and indeed this is a myth, probably arising from its habit of sitting motionless with its head and neck stretched forward in the face of danger.
The Ostrich's reproductive habits are extraordinary too. Up to 78 eggs have been found in a single scrape in the ground (what an omelette that would make!), though this was the result of several females sharing one nest.
Not surprisingly, Ostriches have long been exploited for their flesh, eggs, and magnificent feathers—the eggs being used for ornaments as well as for food. Ostrich meat is high in protein but low in fat, which in the late 20th century led to the spread of ostrich meat as a healthy alternative to beef. However, consumer reluctance and some financial scandals have led to an uncertain future for the industry.Remarkable Birds
100 of the World's Most Notable Birds. Copyright © by Steven Moss. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.