Ostriches racing through the Ngorongoro Crater
Photo: Thomson Safaris guests, Betsy and Paul Goldenberg
Ever watched an awards show, or an Olympics, where one competitor just seems to win it all?
It doesn’t just happen on primetime; nature picks favorites, too. Meet the Michael Phelps-meets-Meryl Streep of the Serengeti: the ostrich.
The ostrich’s first laurel? “Fastest bird on land.” These speedy sprinters easily reach speeds well over 40 mph, and can maintain a speed of around 31 mph for miles on end (this is over double the speed of the next-fastest land bird, the roadrunner, which can run as fast as 20mph during a sprint). Ostriches have even been measured at speeds as high as 60 mph (over very short distances), an ability that helps them evade all but the swiftest predators. They also have the longest strides of any bird, averaging around 12 feet, but extending to nearly double that length during a sprint.
Not that they particularly need the help; the birds also hold the record for “biggest eyes” of any land animal. At two inches in diameter, their eyes are over twice as big across as a human’s, and, paired with their likewise acute hearing, help the birds sense predators from far away.
Ostrich eyes are about two inches in diameter, the largest of any living land mammal
By SandyCole (mailto:email@example.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOstrich%2C_Common_SwellendamToDeHook_Sandy1.jpg
Of course many of us have grown up believing that bigger is better…and there are few creatures bigger than the ostrich. Occasionally growing taller than 9 feet, and weighing well over 300 pounds, they’re the biggest birds around, no matter how you’re measuring.
The superlatives don’t stop there; ostriches lay the biggest eggs of any living species. Ostrich eggs regularly grow up to eight inches long, can weigh up to four pounds, and hold the same volume as about 25 chicken eggs (that’s one heck of a baby).
Maybe all that protein while still in the shell makes them strong; experts are intrigued by the ostrich’s immune system, which some consider the strongest of any living species, and which is regularly studied by researchers looking for clues to improving human health.
That could explain one final, impressive ostrichian feat: the ability to eat, well, anything. In the wild, the birds swallow up to two pounds of pebbles (which help them grind food in the gizzard). In captivity, that tendency has translated to swallowing gloves, combs, watches, and more. One ostrich living in the London Zoo swallowed an alarm clock, a handkerchief, three feet of rope, a pencil, a roll of film, a Belgian franc, three gloves, a collar stud, and half a dozen coins.
Good news in case that Olympic and/or acting career doesn’t work out: a daring ostrich could always find work in the circus (watch out, sword swallowers…).