If you have trouble seeing how birds evolved from dinosaurs, just take one look at the ostrich. Not only are they the world’s largest living birds, they’re also the speediest land animals on two legs. Here are 14 facts worth knowing about the flightless behemoths.
1. Ostriches once lived on two continents.
Before humans were a major threat, ostriches could be found roaming in Asia, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Today they're limited to the woodlands and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.
2. Ostriches are the biggest birds on Earth ...
This is one bird you don’t want to run into in a dark alley: Ostriches can weigh as much as 320 pounds and grow up to 9 feet tall (a sizable portion of which is devoted to their powerful legs). They tower a few feet above the emu, the second-tallest bird at up to 6.2 feet, and outweigh the second heaviest bird, the cassowary, by nearly 200 pounds.
3. ... and they have the biggest eyes to match.
Ostrich eyes aren't just the biggest of any bird—they’re the biggest of any animal on land. Each eye measures close to 2 inches across. That’s about as large as a billiard ball and even larger than the bird’s own brain.
4. Ostriches are incredibly speedy.
Ostriches are the fastest bipedal species on Earth. In rapid bursts, they can reach top speeds of 43 miles per hour, but what’s even more impressive is their endurance: An ostrich is capable of running at 30 miles per hour for 10 miles at a time, making them one of the best long distance runners in the animal kingdom.
5. Ostriches have two toes per foot.
Whereas most birds have three to four toes on each foot, ostriches are unique in that they have only two. The reduced number of digits is believed to reduce the mass at the end of the ostrich’s legs and improve the ostrich’s running form. Hoofed animals like horses, antelope, and camels have also ditched their extra toes over millennia and evolved into some of the world’s best runners.
6. Ostriches use their wings as rudders.
Nature has taught us that wings and feathers can be good for a lot more than flying. In the case of the ostrich, they’re used as rudders for maneuvering their bodies as they travel at high speeds. When turning, breaking, or zig-zagging while they run, ostriches rely on their wings to stay balanced and in control. This useful adaptation can help us better understand why dinosaurs—modern bird’s prehistoric predecessors—grew feathers before developing the capability to fly.
7. People ride ostriches, thought not always successfully.
In the U.S., ostrich racetracks began popping up throughout Florida in the late 19th century. Lightweight tourists could pay 50 cents to climb onto the creature’s back and attempt to take it for a ride. These days, Canterbury Park in Minnesota hosts an annual “Extreme Race Day,” where people race ostriches alongside camels and zebras. Holding on is half the battle.
8. Pebbles help ostriches digest their food.
An ostrich’s diet consists mainly of plant matter, but they’ll occasionally prey upon snakes, lizards, and even rodents. To better break down their meals, ostriches use sand and pebbles as a substitute for teeth; the pebbles help grind up food in their gizzards.
9. Ostrich feathers were once a fashion statement.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ostriches were prized for their long, luxurious feathers. They were used to make boas, fans, hats, and capes for women. At their peak, ostrich feathers cost nearly the same as diamonds did per pound. Today, ostrich feathers are a symbol of tackiness rather than class, but they’re still commonly used to make feather dusters.
10. Ostriches inspired the digital artists of Jurassic World.
When creating the computer-generated raptors of Jurassic World (2015), it was important for the animators to make them look as authentic as possible. To do this, they drew inspiration from animals in the natural world. The locomotion of the Velociraptors was inspired by that of ostriches, probably the closest living approximation we have in terms of size and gait. “It is not only the largest existing bird but it is the fastest two-legged animal on the planet,” the film’s animation supervisor Glen McIntosh told fxguide. “So the length of the steps and the cadence of the steps informed the animators.” The onscreen dinosaurs’ running style differed from ostriches in one major area: their heads. Instead of keeping their necks perfectly upright as they moved, the raptors were animated to lean forward like a tiger on the prowl.
11. Ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand.
The image of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand is one that’s commonly associated with the animal. In fact, it’s so familiar that it’s become its own cliché. But it turns out this comical picture isn’t rooted in reality. Though a doubled-over ostrich’s tiny head may seem to disappear altogether when viewed from a distance, rest assured that everything stays above the surface. This myth likely originated from the sight of ostriches caring for their eggs. Some ostrich nests are up to 2 feet deep, and when they bend down to rotate their eggs it’s easy to see how someone could mistake this for a buried head from far way.
12. Ostriches have an impressive lifespan.
In the wild, ostriches live an average of 30 to 40 years, but in captivity they’re able to rival the life expectancy of humans. They can live to be as old as 70, and will continue to breed well into old age.
13. Ostriches lay super-sized eggs.
It makes sense that the largest bird eggs come from the largest living birds. Measuring 6 inches in diameter and weighing up to 3 pounds, ostrich eggs are massive (though in relation to the ostrich’s own body mass, they’re comparatively smaller than the eggs laid by other birds). Ostrich eggs are considered a delicacy, though if you plan to crack one open you better be cooking for a crowd—a single ostrich egg contains 2000 calories, which is about the total daily recommended intake for an adult woman.
14. Farm-raised ostriches get turned on by humans.
It’s not too difficult to tell if an ostrich is into you. When courting females, males will extend their wings, crouch down, and rock their entire bodies side to side. At one ostrich ranch in the UK, farmers noticed their birds acting randier than usual whenever people were around. A 1998 study supported their suspicions: When humans were observed walking by ostrich enclosures, both males and females were twice as likely to solicit sex. This cross-species attraction only seemed to apply to ostriches who had been raised by people from birth. When humans approached the one control ostrich who had been raised in a wildlife park with ostriches, he either acted aggressively or ignored them completely.