A member of the ratite group of birds who have weak wing muscles and so cannot fly, the ostrich is the biggest bird on the planet today. Found mainly in the semi-arid regions of central and southern Africa, where lions, leopards and hyenas are constantly on the prowl, ostriches have learned to outrun their enemies.
Ostriches have the speed to evade most African predators, and when frightened they can sprint away from danger at up to 72.5 kilometres (45 miles) per hour. They can also run over longer periods of time at slower speeds -say, for 20 minutes at 48 kilometres (30 miles) per hour. While speed is clearly an ostrich’s main advantage, when trapped they are not entirely defenceless as they can use their strong legs to land a mighty blow on a would-be attacker. And their two-toed feet feature a pretty nasty ten-centimetre (four-inch) claw that can also inflict a lot of damage.
So what enables this nomadic, social bird to take off at such impressive speeds? Those unique toes we mentioned are also key to the creature’s agility as – together with their strong leg muscles -they maximise speed by ensuring minimal contact is made with the ground.
The ostrich is the only bird with two toes and it’s the inner of the two that is the most important. This digit is longer, which assists the bird in pushing off with its feet, and it also features that potentially lethal claw. This foot layout helps to support the weight of this hefty bird.
Burying the myth for good
While being tall and leggy might enable an ostrich to outrun most predators, it also makes it hard to be inconspicuous. Almost half of an ostrich’s total height is made up by its neck and so that’s the most obvious body part to hide from view.
However, while a young ostrich will often lie down with its neck flat on the ground to avoid detection, the birds also get down on the floor to rearrange their eggs that are buried in the dust. The idea that they foolishly bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of imminent danger, however, is actually a complete myth.