ostrich on a beach.

They may look goofy, but ostriches are nobody’s fool

Forget the dim-witted stereotype. These big birds are shrewd survivors in a world of predators.

Standing tall at the southern tip of Africa, a male ostrich surveys the shore near the Cape of Good Hope. Growing up to nine feet tall and 300 pounds, Earth’s biggest bird has no shortage of gangly, comic appeal—but this bird is no easy mark for its enemies.
This story appears in the September 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Most of us happily get by on a single cartoonish idea about ostriches: They’re the big birds that bury their heads in the sand in times of crisis, supposedly thinking that if they can’t see danger, danger can’t see them.

In our ragbag of stereotypes, ostriches have thus become the quintessential dim-witted animals. Even the Bible says they’re dumb, and bad parents too.

The head-in-sand idea is a threadbare, 2,000-year-old hand-me-down from the Roman naturalist Pliny, who sometimes passed on tall tales. Think about it. Ostriches have long, bony legs, a torso held aloft like a great floating raft of flesh and feathers, and a neck like a periscope, topped by a wedge-shaped head with eyes bigger than an elephant’s, at a height of up to nine feet. It is an unlikely design for head-burying.

Ostriches do in fact often hold their heads low to the ground—not under it—to feed on plants or to tend their nests. But their necks are light and flexible, with 17 cervical vertebrae to our seven, and easily move up and down, side to side, and front to back. And their giant eyes help them keep close watch on the world around them.

They have reason to stay alert. For starters, they’re basically oversize chickens in habitats populated by hungry lions, leopards, hyenas, African wild dogs, and cheetahs. And while adult ostriches are too formidable to be easy prey—their kick can break bones, and the larger of their two claws can disembowel an adversary—they’re much better at fleeing than fighting, with a top escape speed of more than 40 miles an hour.

What also keeps them alert is the peril facing their offspring. Ostriches make their nests—just clearings on the ground—in the open, where their eggs can be smashed to bits by any blundering elephant, never mind hungry predators. (Well, mind the predators too.) Success requires improbable luck. The largest bird on Earth, and one of the most conspicuous, must keep its nest undetected—or stand ready to defend it—for more than two months, from laying the first eggs to hatching. Failure is routine, and that is the driving force behind its ingeniously communal nesting behavior.

A good place to see ostriches is Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. It’s 1,100 square miles of dry hills and grassy plains along the Tarangire River. The elephants spread out in great herds here, together with zebras and wildebeests by the thousands. Ostriches are common too, but when I join University of Dar es Salaam wildlife ecologist Flora John Magige, an expert on ostrich behavior, on a search for nests, our first discovery is a bust.

Nine eggs are scattered in the brush over an area roughly 75 feet across. Magige surveys the area like a detective working a murder scene. She points out a faint scraping in the dirt where the nest had been, and right next to it the freshly dug burrow of an aardvark. Not guilty, she thinks. The scattering is more likely the work of a hungry predator, but not a big one, because all the eggs are still intact. Maybe a jackal then? In any case, the male and female ostrich have moved on, as they often do when a nest is disturbed. It’s possible that they’ll nest together again.

But ostriches in breeding season are relentlessly promiscuous, with both males and females seeking liaisons with multiple partners. No doubt they have their reasons. But from an evolutionary perspective, playing the field is a way to get diverse DNA into as many nests as possible and compensate for the fact that most nests fail.

Thus at 10:30 one morning we spot a couple mating about 500 yards off the park’s main road. They break apart, and as the male walks on, his most recent consort and two other females follow. One of them soon begins soliciting him, holding her wings away from her body and shaking them like pom-poms. In breeding season, females can produce an egg every two days, and the urge to make the egg fertile is insistent. But males are often in short supply, perhaps because they jealously guard their territory, forcing some to emigrate.

The male ignores her. Their walk takes them on a meandering route past tall, spreading acacia trees and squat baobabs with fat trunks scarred by the endless scraping of elephants. By the road, the female tries again, her wings shimmying. A safari vehicle shoots past, casting a train of dust across her romantic display. The male walks on. Undaunted, she finds an excuse to walk in front of him, wings low and trembling.

“But he isn’t convinced,” Magige says.

The seduction takes more than an hour. They find their way down to a sandy beach on the Tarangire River. As she walks away, he drops to the ground, finally smitten. Then he executes the full pre-copulatory display, like a head-banging air guitar player: wings spiraling, body rocking wildly from side to side, head flung back so far it bounces off his ribs, ka-thump on one side, ka-thump on the other.

She strolls on, indifferent now. Finally, though, they get together in the dry riverbed. He writhes over her for a minute or two as she sits sphinxlike, dignified, head straight in the air. At his moment of greatest ecstasy, she spots something tasty on the sand and reaches out to eat it.

Afterward everyone drinks and feeds for a while along the river, a sort of ostrich picnic. We turn to leave for our own lunch, and when we pause for one last look back, all three females are approaching the male, their wings held out and softly shaking.

We had followed this group of ostriches in the hope that they would lead us to a nest, but an ostrich nest can be hard to see even when you know exactly where it is. The male typically tends it by night, sitting with head up, on the lookout. The female takes over by day. When she slants her tail feathers down in back, and her long neck in front, she can look like nothing more than an old termite mound or a tree stump. Sometimes the easiest way to find a nest is just to sit and wait for another ostrich to come visiting, which happens with surprising frequency.

One afternoon we take up position in a great open plain and soon find that it’s a thriving ostrich territory. Somewhere out in front of us a female is sitting on her nest. The nesting male is grazing a few hundred yards to the left and not seeming to pay much attention. But when another male turns up a half mile or more in the distance, he begins walking toward him in a determined way, then running. As in humans, promiscuity and possessiveness can coexist: The nesting male aims to monopolize his partner’s matings, and that means running off rival males.

What’s more surprising is how the nesting pair responds to visiting females. Other species have evolved elaborate defenses to deter “brood parasites,” birds that try to fob off the tedious work of parenting by slipping their eggs into other birds’ nests. Ostriches are different. When another female approaches, the nesting female will often stand up and step aside, allowing the visitor to lay eggs alongside her own. According to some studies, the nesting female is typically the biological mother of only about half the 19 or 20 eggs she can successfully incubate, with minor females contributing the rest. It’s not brood parasitism; it’s communal nesting, and like promiscuity, it’s a way for ostriches to achieve reproductive success in a hazardous world.

That’s not to say all is sisterly love and happiness. The nesting female may not have much choice, according to Brian Bertram, the biologist who provided the first detailed description of communal nesting, in 1979. Resisting a visiting female could lead to conflict and attract lions and other predators. It could also break eggs, mostly her own, and the smell could draw hyenas or jackals. Besides, the visiting female typically towers above the resident female. Bertram observed one nesting female inclined to stay seated. So the visitor just stood there pecking at her head “fairly gently” but persistently for 20 minutes, until finally the nesting bird stood up, exasperated, and stepped aside.

Communal nesting provides the nesting couple with certain selfish benefits, Bertram says. For the male, his philandering in the neighborhood means that he has probably fathered about one-third of the eggs added to the nest by nearby females. For the nesting female, having extra eggs in the nest dilutes the risk. No one knows how she can tell the difference, but she routinely keeps her own eggs in the center of the nest, and consigns those of other females to what Bertram calls “the doomed outer ring.” Having more chicks together after hatching also makes it less likely her chicks will be the ones picked off by a predator.

One of the most striking things to me about ostriches, apart from their size, is the sense that they are in motion even when standing still. This is especially true of the female, because her tawny coloration makes the fluttering of her feathers more visible. The male’s black-and-white plumage can seem more constrained, like a tuxedo. In both sexes, the feathers are unusually long and full, especially on the wings and tail. They also lack the tiny hooks, or barbicels, that cinch feathers together in most other birds. This is what gives them such a captivating tendency to drift and billow in the breeze. It’s functional: The ostrich can loosen the feathers to help dissipate body heat or draw them close to conserve it. That flounciness is also the quality that has caused human fashion to repeatedly fall in and out of love with ostrich feathers.

The route to the heart of the ostrich trade runs through a narrow, red-rock pass in the Swartberg mountains of South Africa’s Western Cape Province. Below that natural cleft, quilted farm fields spread out across a semiarid plateau encircled by ragged mountains. The Little Karoo is an oddly remote and isolated source for the feathery excesses of Ascot racegoers and Las Vegas showgirls. But the region around the town of Oudtshoorn (pronounced OATS-horn) has been the center of the world ostrich trade for more than 150 years.

Beginning in the 1860s, when the feather trade was already pushing ostriches to extinction in some areas, farmers here helped pioneer captive breeding. The communal nature of ostriches may have made these birds more amenable to life in captivity. Their inability to fly or jump also helped. Fields (or “camps”) enclosed by chest-high wire fences now contain thousands of ostriches in seeming harmony, sometimes spread out like feathered chess pieces, sometimes seated in clusters. The ostrich’s evolution suited it to the desertlike vegetation of the Little Karoo, which also proved ideal for growing bright green patches of irrigated alfalfa, the preferred feed for farmed ostriches.

Farmworkers wander through the camps each day during the breeding season, gathering eggs for delivery to commercial incubator units: 112 eggs per rack, 1,008 eggs per unit, slowly rotating, at 96.8 degrees. “At day 42,” says Saag Jonker, a prominent local farmer, “the chick breaks through into an air pocket in the egg, inhales, and gets the strength to break through the shell.” It may live a year, if bred for meat and leather, up to 15 years if bred for feathers, with plucking at roughly nine-month intervals.

The ostrich trade has always been an unpredictable business, with prices fluctuating wildly at the whim of international fashion. It’s in a down cycle at the moment, and Jonker and his wife, Hazel, chat hopefully about Kate Middleton’s taste in ostrich-feather hats and about how soon Louis Vuitton might come back to ostrich leather for its bags.

The golden age for the ostrich trade and Oudtshoorn began in about 1870, driven by demand for ostrich feathers on the hats of fashionable women. “Feather mansions” from that era still grace Oudtshoorn’s streets with towers, gables, wraparound porches, and fancy trimwork known locally as “broekie” lace, from the Afrikaans word for women’s underwear. It’s a measure of just how prosperous the trade was that in 1912, the most valuable cargo carried by the Titanic wasn’t diamonds or gold but 12 cases of ostrich plumes valued at $2.3 million in today’s money. That all ended, though, in 1914, when war and open-roofed motorcars made big, plumy hats suddenly unfashionable.

One morning in town, I run into Maurice “Mickey” Fisch, a retired ostrich farmer and a remnant of the Jewish community that once dominated the world ostrich trade from Oudtshoorn. Jewish immigrants, driven from Europe by political and economic oppression, began arriving in the late 19th century.

“And the Afrikaners welcomed them with open arms,” Fisch says. “They accommodated them in their homes, sometimes for days.”

Early immigrants tended to become peddlers. But those who followed had worked often in commodities or the clothing trade, and the diaspora meant they had connections with immigrant communities in those trades in London, New York, and other great cities. Oudtshoorn’s feather business grew up largely through those connections, in a network that extended from the Yiddish-speaking feather buyer traveling farm to farm, on up to the artisans who fabricated ostrich-feather products and the retail merchants who sold them. At the height of the trade, several hundred Jewish families lived in Oudtshoorn and supported two synagogues.

Fisch holds open a book about local history and points to a photo of his grandfather and namesake, Maurice Lipschitz. “He was the biggest ostrich farmer in the world,” says Fisch. “When he died in 1936, he owned 35 farms.” Montague House, the feather mansion he built, had a ballroom, a wine cellar, and a 400-gallon tub lined with Carrara marble. This may not have been as elegant as it sounds: There were six sons and four daughters, says Fisch, and “one bath a week for all those children.”

The house still stands, but it’s subdivided now into a restaurant, a shop, a residence, and a doctor’s office. The ostrich trade is in the hands of a nondenominational co-op, and the Jewish families have dwindled to so few that the surviving synagogue has to bring in Jewish worshippers from the surrounding area to make a minyan, a quorum, for holy day services. After 50 years of farming, Fisch too has left the ostrich business, and says good riddance. His view of ostriches echoes Job 39:16-17, which calls them “deprived” of wisdom and indifferent even to the well-being of their own offspring. Ostriches, says Fisch, are “stupid birds that just had nice feathers.”

I don’t ask him about their parenting skills, but I get a chance to find out for myself soon after. One morning at De Hoop Nature Reserve on the southern tip of Africa, I watch a male ostrich and a female feeding. They are watching me too, but after a while they relax, and, as if on signal, nine ostrich chicks come out of hiding. They’re plump little creatures a week or two old, dodo-like, with tawny, mottled necks and short, bristling down on their bodies. They feed, and their parents follow close behind, also feeding.

Soon after, a murderous trio of baboons approaches across a field. The male ostrich glowers, then runs forward, pushing them away. The baboons come back again and again, but each time the male blocks their path. Then an entire troop of baboons wanders out onto the clearing. The chicks huddle together nervously as the two adult ostriches stand glaring at these intruders. Prudently, the baboons pass by, looking elsewhere, as if an ostrich sandwich is the last thing on their minds.

The baboons have no sooner moved off than it begins to rain, a lashing, sideways, coastal sort of cloudburst. The male and female immediately sit down and lift their wings as the chicks come racing in for cover. So many of them nose in under the dad’s left wing that they look like piglets on a sow. Then the wings come down and they vanish, entirely sheltered from the chilling rain. When the downpour finally stops, one of the chicks pops up its head through the wing feathers and looks around, literally wearing its parent as a raincoat. It’s pretty much the opposite of burying its head in the sand. The weather being acceptable, it slips out, still dry and warm, into the world again.

Maybe you wouldn’t call that intelligence, but it suggests a certain genius for survival. And I walk away thinking we should all be such good parents.

Author Richard Conniff’s books about wildlife include Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time. Klaus Nigge trained and worked as a biologist before becoming a wildlife photojournalist.

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