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Ostriches

The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the tallest and heaviest bird in the world. They are 7 to 9 feet (2.1 to 2.7 m) tall and weigh 220 to 350 pounds (100 to 160 kg). Ostriches the largest eyes of all land animals. They measure nearly 2 inches (5 cm) across and weigh about 3 pounds (1.3 kg). They are also the only birds in the world with only two toes on their feet. Ostriches are one of three ratites, large flightless birds. The other two ratite species are the emu and rhea. There are 3 main species of ostriches of which only one, the Struthio Camelus Domesticus (the African Black), is found in captivity.

The ostrich's head and most of the neck are lightly downed. Both males and females have huge brown eyes and long, thick lashes that protect their huge eyes from sand storms. And, both have long, mobile necks and small heads. The male ostrich's body feathers are black with white plumes in the wings and tail. Females and young males have brownish grey feathers for camouflage. Both male and female ostriches have long, powerful, featherless legs and feet that look almost like a cloven hoof with only two toes. These two toes are equipped with sharp claws that are about 4 inches (10 cm) long. A hard tread on the larger toe protects the bird's foot as it runs and provides traction on the sandy ground. The skin on the head, neck and featherless legs is blue or pink in males and pinkish gray in females.

The ostrich is the fasted two-legged animal, reaching to speeds of up to 43 miles (70 km) per hour and sustaining a speed of about 31 miles (50 km) per hour for about 30 minutes. It also has the endurance to roam long distances in search of food and water. A single ostrich stride can be 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) long. It also uses its long, powerful legs to defend itself. The ostrich can deliver a kick strong enough to kill an adult male lion and bend 10-mm steel rods into 90-degree angles.

Ostriches are found either alone or in flocks of 5 to 50, typically among grazing animals, in the dry, sandy regions of Africa, including grassland, desert, woodlands, shrubland, and savannas, flat grasslands with scattered trees and shrubs. Their keen eyesight and long necks help them spot predators from a long ways off. Top that with the ostrich's excellent hearing, and it's no wonder why they are important sentinels for grazing mammals such as giraffes, antelopes, zebras and gazelles.

Ostriches are flightless birds. They don't have a breastbone called a keeled sternum that flying birds have. Their feathers are also different from those of birds that fly. The feathers are fluffy and don't hook together like the feathers of flying birds. Ostriches also don't have the special gland many birds have to waterproof their feathers while preening, so their feathers can get soaked in the rain. However, the growth of soft plumage, with almost the warmth of down, acts as an insulation against the harsh temperatures of their arid environment.

While ostriches can't fly, their wings serve other purposes. They use their wings balance and as rudders to help them change direction when running. They use them for courtship display. And, they use their wings to shelter their young from the sun and rain. Additionally, two of the wing fingers end in spurs that they use slash at attackers.

Ostriches are considered omnivorous, meaning they eat both meat and vegetation. But, they are mainly vegetarian. They eat roots, leaves, flowers and seeds of many plants, including succulent plants. They'll occasionally eat invertebrates and small lizards. The ostrich's intestines are about 46 feet (14 m) long, allowing them to get the most of the tough plants it eats.

Ostriches don't have teeth, so they have to swallow their food whole. The food collects in the crop until there is a large enough lump to slide down the neck in a bolus into the proventriculus (glandular stomach), where it is mixed with mucus and digestive juices. Preparation for digestion is completed in the gizzard. To help break down food in their gizzard, ostriches will swallow sand, pebbles, small stones and sometimes even diamonds.

What's a gizzard?
The gizzard is an enlargement of the alimentary canal (sort of like a second stomach) in birds, reptiles, earthworms, some fish, and other creatures that serves to break the food down by muscular action and, in the case of ostriches and some other animals, ingested stones.

Bird gizzards, including those of ostriches, are lined with a tough layer made of the protein keratin, to protect the muscles. The stones that ostriches swallow to help with digestion are called gizzard stones or gastroliths. They are usually smooth and round from the polishing action in the animal's stomach. When too smooth to do their required work, the stones may be passed or regurgitated.

Like other animals in arid regions, ostriches can go for long periods of time without water. They can make their own water internally and get the rest from vegetation. Ostriches also a special way of raising their body temperature on hot days to reduce water loss. But, they enjoy water. Ostriches will drink up to 1.5 gallons of water if they come to a watering hole. And, they frequently take baths when given the opportunity.

Ostriches communicate with a variety of sounds including, whistling, hissing, snorting, guttural noises and 'booming' calls as well as bill snapping and stomach rumbling. Booming is typically used to proclaim territory and during mating display.

Ostriches are polygamous. A male gathers a harem of 3 to 5 receptive females. All the eggs are laid in a communal nest that is nothing more than a shallow cavity scooped out from the ground. The dominant female is the one who pairs up with the male to incubate the eggs and raise the chicks. She puts her own eggs in the center of the nest to assure they have the best chance of hatching. She incubates the eggs during the day, and the male incubates at night. Because the eggs are laid on the open ground, they are tempting treats to predators including jackels and monitor lizards.

Only about 50% of the eggs end up hatching, and the young are up and running with the parents within minutes of hatching. But, the adults defend them against predators. Despite this protection, only about 15% of the young reach their 1st birthday. Ostriches can live to up 40 years.

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