The Wakamba gazed upon the white glaciers and black rocks of the hill, likened it to an ostrich and therefore named the bird Kiinya. Today it’s name is anglicised, but how the hen that lays the biggest egg received its modern name requires a (os)stretch of the imagination.
Many people have also raised their eyes to Struthio camelus, some over rifle sights, others to audit his assets. Because of the earlier zeal of hunters, it became necessary to import birds from northern countries when South Africans began ostrich farming in 1868.
No feather-brained idea either, for by the early 20th century more than £1million worth of wing and tail plumes was being exported annually for the dusters, boas, dress and hat trimmings of the fashion industry in Europe. The market subsequently faltered but farming briefly revived when fashion swung to ostrich skin bags, shoes and suitcases. Later “biltong” – the salted and dried meat survival ration of the old Boer commandos – and low-cholesterol steaks brought another resurgence in ostrich farming. By the 1970s over 36,000 birds were being ranched in South Africa’s Oudtshoorn district. Since then the industry has spread to neighbouring Zimbabwe and, using imported birds, to Australia.
Visit an Oudtshoorn farm and get taken for a ride. But be warned: ostriches are not easy to mount, can cruise bouncily at 50kph for half-an-hour, and put in a 70kph sprint. Further, dismount carefully, for one judiciously placed kick from the long, powerful, clawed, two-toed legs of an irate cock could shorten your safari, maybe permanently. In fact, if you are given the 5cm eyeball you’re better to hit the deck fast, thus avoiding the hoof. Then again, ostriches have been known to practice trampoline bounces or simply plonk their 90-135kg bulk upon prostrate victims, so maybe not.
Such intimate contact would, of course, enable you to weigh up his origins. If he’s about 160kg, 9ft tall and has pink neck and thighs, he’s probably a northerner – Senegal and Niger across to Sudan and Ethiopia. If a little less physically endowed, but still pink, he could be a Masai. If he’s lighter and greyer, he’s a member of the Somali or southern African races.
Whilst underneath that bulk, you may empathise with the ostrich’s eggs. Being 15-20cms in length, 10-15cms in diameter, weighing about 1.5kg, having a shell capable of supporting a man, and numbering up to 20 in a clutch, they are well equipped to survive the immediate pressures.
Hottentot bushmen used to consume an entire egg each – equivalent to two dozen from a chicken. The egg was expertly prepared for tasting by piercing a hole at one end, inserting a forked stick with the ends pinched together as it entered the hole and twirling the stick between the hands to scramble the egg as it cooked in its shell over the fire.
When nesting, hens take the day shift, when their scraggy grey feathers are practically indistinguishable from the scrub-coloured veldt, whilst the black cock-bird squats during the hours of darkness. The old myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand was derived from seeing them lay their long necks on the ground to avoid detection. Fairly intelligent really.
Further evidence of their nous comes from Namibia, where a farmer once trained two birds to herd his sheep. Presumably they were hens, for in the cock bird the eye is larger than the brain! In fact, it’s the largest eye of any terrestrial animal – and it’s on the end of a flexible periscope!
Ostriches have a liking for hard titbits. The stomach contents of one inmate of London Zoo were found to include: a 1m length of rope; a spool of film; an alarm clock; a cycle valve; a pencil; a comb; three gloves; a handkerchief; pieces of a gold necklace; a watch and a number of coins. One 11-month-old cock at Oudtshoorn was found to have swallowed 484 coins weighing over 3.6kg but it seems it was the financial burden that was his undoing. In Namibia, they have been known to ingest diamonds, but most ostriches in the wild settle for plain ordinary old pebbles. These are an aid to digesting the insects and vegetable matter such as the acacia and aloe pods that they forage.
Ostriches don’t do things by halves. Not only are they the world’s largest birds, but they also rear the bird world’s biggest broods. It is not unusual to see more than 50 youngsters clustered around the huge feet of two doting parents. However, this crowd is not all the fruit of one pair’s loins. Ostriches have an unusual breeding system, in which a territorial male, having driven away rivals and mated with various females, scrapes a nest and waits for females to fill it with eggs. The first female to do so becomes the ‘major hen’ and pairs up with him. Other females also add their eggs, but only the ‘major pair’ remains to incubate the clutch and raise the young. The resulting brood harbours genes from the whole neighbourhood. Once the chicks are up and running, their parents may then also abduct other parents’ chicks to form giant crèches. This may sound like a selfless community childcare service, but in fact the adults tend to keep their own young close by, while allowing others to run on the outside of the group as decoys for predators.