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I Heart Ostriches

I admit that my job lands me in some pretty special situations (in the lap of a panda, next to mountain gorillas, or among several thousand baby fur seals), but nothing prepared me for the marvelous wonder and utter cuteness of a little newborn ostrich as it breaks out its giant shell.

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After 42 days of incubation, a baby ostrich breaks away his shell att the Cango Ostrich Farm near Oudtshoorn, South Africa (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Of all the terrific highlights in South Africa, getting close and personal to the world’s largest bird was a highlight for me, in part because I knew so little about them. For example, did you know that an ostrich will lay up to 20 eggs, between the long summer of August to May, and that it takes 42 days to incubate an ostrich egg? Also, ostrich eggs are the largest bird eggs in the world, weighing 5 lbs (2.2 kg), with shells that are 2 mm thick, making them strong enough to withstand 370 pounds (160 kg) of pressure? In the wild, ostrich moms and dads take turns sitting on the nest, turning the eggs regularly in order to warm them thoroughly on all sides. After hatching, it’s the male ostrich who looks after the young. Visiting Cango Ostrich Farms, I was able to watch one young bird step out of his shell and wobble his long neck for the first time. But within a year, a young ostrich already weight 100 pounds! Full-grown ostriches are so huge,  they simply intimidate me. It’s a little discomforting to confront a bird that is taller and weighs more than I do.

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Feeding ostriches from a bucket at one of the many ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn, South Africa *Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Once they are fully grown, ostriches can reach up to 9 feet tall (2.8 m)! and weight 330 lbs (15o kg)! Once hunted for their beautifully soft and flowing feathers, the world’s biggest birds were domesticated in South Africa some 150 years ago. Today, South Africa’s Klein Karoo is the world’s largest exporter of ostrich meat, leather and feathers, and for any travelers interested in getting up close and personal with these amazing creatures, I recommend visiting an ostrich farm. Oudtshoorn, in the Klein Karoo, is the ostrich capital of the world, with several ostrich show farms, along with many more commercial ostrich farms (not for show, but openly visible) where you can observe the birds, feed the birds, and even ride the birds, if so inclined.

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A young ostrich on a commercial farm near Oudtshoorn, South Africa (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Afterwards, you can eat the birds, since ostrich meat is served at nearly every farm and restaurant in town. For lunch I ate ostrich kebabs, in the afternoon I had a piece of ostrich droewors, and for dinner, I ate ostrich pâté, carpaccio, and then steak. Does that sound completely barbaric? Well, consider how many times you eat chicken and the fact that baby chickens are nearly as cute as baby ostriches.

In fact, ostrich meat has become increasingly popular because it’s  so good for you. As red meats go, ostrich is extremely low in fat and cholesterol, yet high in protein and iron. It’s also much better for the environment than eating beef or pork since ostrich are native to the dry landscapes of the Karoo.

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Sunset along the mountains of the Klein Karoo near Oudtshoorn in South Africa. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

As I continue to explore this lesser-known region of South Africa’s Western Cape, I am captivated by the sunlight and mountains, the trees and rocks, but most of all the birds, from the tiniest Cape Sparrows to the ostriches sprinting in the fields. You cannot travel here and get so close to these birds without becoming totally enamored by them. They are wonderfully unique creatures, with so many special features that set them apart from anything else in the world with feathers. The ostriches of Oudsthoorn are truly unforgettable, but even so, I was seriously tempted to kidnap this particular ostrich baby as my own little souvenir (Can you honestly blame me?). Yes, South Africa has all the wine and adventure you could want, but if it’s cute that you’re after, definitely come to Oudsthoorn.

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Ostrich baby (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

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