08 November 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Giant birds that roar

South Africa has a long history of farming with ostriches, but as any ostrich farmer will tell you, it’s no easy business. Still, they are fascinating creatures, and not only because of their size.

Ostriches can be distinctly goofy. Photo Chris Marais

In the handsome Calvinia Museum – in what used to be the local synagogue – there is a stuffed baby ostrich with 4 legs.

The last time I saw it, it was on counter near the entrance, and unlike most of the displays, had no information on it.

Turns out there’s a catch, which I won’t spoil, since you really should go there yourself – it’s an excellent museum.

But I can imagine it’s taken in quite a few people because ostriches are truly very odd birds.

Or maybe we only notice because they are so very large. Maybe if ordinary old wagtails or sparrows could stand flatfooted and look us in the eye, we’d also notice a lot more about them.

By day they court the drab females with wild fandango dances, shimmying their feathers like feather boas.

So large are ostriches that I’ve been assured 4 people can dine handsomely on a single ostrich wing. Alas, I’ve never had the opportunity to test the boast.

Apart from its height, beefy thighs and alleged family-sized wings, the ostrich also has huge eyes – each one dwarfs its brain, which would hardly fill a teaspoon.

Ostriches are also remarkably swift, sprinting at speeds of up to 70km/h. In the 1700s they were occasionally harnessed to light carts in South Africa, although one does wonder – given their legendary stupidity – how they responded to the bridle and harness.

It is a treat to see ostriches in the wild during mating season, but keep a safe distance, because the males can be mindlessly aggressive. Tip: stay away generally, but especially when the males have bright red shins (which is during mating season).

At night, the males roar like lions and by day they court the drab females with wild fandango dances, shimmying their feathers like feather boas straight out of the old Moulin Rouge.

Category: Wildlife

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