Ostriches in the wild
Did you know?
The ostrich has an eyeball larger than a golf ball – and its own brain.
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking every ostrich you see in South Africa comes from an Oudtshoorn farm. In fact, many are wild, and part of the avifauna of many national parks.
Having said that, humans saw the benefits of farming ostriches long before they were ‘officially’ domesticated in 1863. Swedish explorer Anders Sparrman noted that in 1775 many farmers in the Cape had tame ostriches from which they would harvest feathers ‘which were made into brooms, and helped to drive away the mosquitoes’.
In the wild, usually in the Karoo, you’ll often see a dark-feathered male ostrich with a host of drabber ‘wives’ trotting behind. A rare phenomenon – but a real treat – is to see a male doing the mating dance. Suddenly you realise where the idea for cabaret came from. His shins bright red with ardour, he shimmies and dances, fluffing his feathers in an amorous fandango.
Incidentally, some people have observed that ostriches love to dance and will often spontaneously whirl about until quite giddy.
The male has many wives but chief among them is the dominant female, also called the major hen. When the time comes to lay, the major hen picks the spot, lays her eggs and then allows the other females to do the same. The clutch of eggs can number many dozens.
But by some uncanny trick she knows which are hers and which are not, and she boosts the others’ eggs to the edges, where they are more likely to be snaffled by jackals and other ostrich egg-loving predators.
Only she and the male do the incubating. The dark male does the night shift, and the grey female sits on the eggs by day.
The chicks hatch, not by using an egg tooth like many other birds, but by flexing their muscles. This is a serious feat of strength – to break an ostrich egg, a human usually needs to use a saw or a hammer.
And as for that so-called habit of ostriches burying their heads in the sand, that comes from the chicks. When they feel threatened, they lie down and stretch their necks along the ground to be less visible.
Travel tips & Planning info
How to get here
Ostriches in the wild are usually seen in parks in the arid regions, like the Karoo National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Mountain Zebra National Park and Tankwa Karoo National Park. But they occur in many other parks and reserves, too.
Best time to visit
Ostriches will typically court females between April and September (which is when the male does his inimitable mating cabaret). Chicks are mostly hatched from October through December.
Tours to do
If you don’t see ostriches in the wild, then you can see them en masse at ostrich farms, many of which are geared for visitors, around Oudtshoorn. They offer tours and you can learn all about ostriches.
You might see ostriches while travelling along major roads. In fact, some are kept on farms as ‘sheep guards’. But you’ll more often see wild ostriches in parks and reserves, either while on a game drive, or while driving yourself.
What to eat
Ostrich meat (which is farmed) is very lean and tasty. Fillets are very popular, as is ostrich biltong. You can buy ostrich meat in many butcheries and supermarkets in South Africa, or order it in a restaurant.