An index to this series appears in the header of the first post.
As a rule, I try to avoid places that are surrounded for miles in every direction by roadside marketing billboards. Having been drawn to Safari Ostrich Farm to see its farmhouse Feather Palace, though, I knew I needed to take the tractor tour. I paid my R146 (around $10 USD) and waited in a shady spot on the bench. Conveniently, the site offers an extensive gift shop, a sit-down restaurant, and a large cafeteria to help one pass the time. Soon others began joining me on the bench for our 11AM tour. I was pleased that I could differentiate the accent from Great Britain from the accent of South Africa (don’t judge– I’m an American!).
Our group appeared to be only five people, and the site appointed Picasso as our tour leader. He seemed very young, and he didn’t have the tour guide badge in the colors of the South African flag, but Picasso handled himself well as he still pointed our little group into the start of the tour. It began a bit damply as we were all walked over a sponge filled with disinfectant to protect the youngest birds we would see. We entered a room displaying some basics on the birds, including a replica of an early ostrich incubator model. The “Eclipse” triggered a revolution in the ostrich industry, back when it was invented by Arthur Douglass in 1869. Shooting wild ostriches for their feathers was inhumane and wasteful, but controlling the birds from the moment the eggs were laid led to much more manageable animals. Picasso shared that ostrich chicks require several hours to break out of the eggs, kicking with their toenails to shatter the 2mm-thick shells.
Picasso was rather suddenly taken from us. A group of approximately ten Brazillians had been a bit tardy to come to the tour start site, so Picasso returned to walk them over to us. We peered around the chamber and discovered a booth with natty leather hats and ostrich feather boas. The Brits and I wasted no time acquiring some photos in these high fashions.
When Picasso returned with the large group, he found us spread all over the room, but soon he marshaled us into a coherent, listening audience. I was grateful for a little discussion on the niche the ostrich fits among the Ratitae: flightless birds. Yes, the ostrich is the largest flightless bird today, but a couple thousand years ago, that honor would instead have gone to the elephant bird, found on Madagascar. I liked the exhibit Picasso showed us that compared the thick sternum bone of the ostrich to its tiny brain (you could probably fit three or four brains into one ostrich egg). The emu, a significantly smaller flightless bird in Australia, produces an egg of nearly the same diameter as the ostrich.
As we came outside, it was time for Picasso to demonstrate the incredible strength of ostrich eggs. We were invited to stand atop a small clutch of eggs. He noted that the eggs could likely withstand the force of a person massing 220 kg (~485 pounds) atop them. Nobody in our group was even close.
From there, we had the opportunity to meet the birds up close. We learned that the adult male and female birds can be easily distinguished by coloration. The black and white color pattern (along with a frequently dusty tail) is the male bird, while the gray pattern distinguishes the female. The adults we saw in this first enclosure were around twenty years of age, but they can live just as long as humans can! The birds were clearly not intimidated by us. Both males and females snapped with their beaks at the top wires of the fence. We had all received the warning that an ostrich will snap up anything shiny it sees. I kept my distance. Several people, though, tried their hand at feeding the birds.
Oudtshoorn was ideal for the ostrich industry in two particulars: 1) its temperature led to rapid plumage replacement (ranchers could pluck adult birds every eight months), and 2) the area’s soil is rich in lime, making it ideal for growing lucerne (Americans would say alfalfa). The lucerne is milled into pellets for the birds to eat. The guests at the farm could scoop up some pellets and toss them in the direction of the ostrich, which would strike at the pellets to gobble them mid-air. It looked downright threatening! Picasso built their fearsome reputation by noting that the middle toenail for an adult ostrich can grow to seven centimeters (3 inches). Yes, an ostrich can disembowel a lion with a lucky kick. The toe claw also plays an important role in traction as the birds maneuver at high speed.
The Safari Ostrich farm is also home to emus, but these animals are only for show; they are not farmed for feathers, leather, or meat like the ostriches (though some enterprising farmers have grown them to produce emu oil!). The emu enclosure had just a few animals, and they seemed much less prone to intimidating the visitors. Picasso noted that the females were more aggressive than the males, a reversal of the ostrich split.
With that, we boarded the trailer for our tractor ride. It wasn’t a particularly long loop. I hadn’t anticipated that our trailer would be rolling among the birds. Those long necks allow for quite a lot of reach! Because the driver occasionally dumped a shovel of pellets on the ground, the birds were very interested in us. I and others reached out to touch their feathers when they were distracted.
Seeing the five-day-old chicks was definitely a highlight for me. The light colored feathers on a dark background made them look like hedgehogs! I liked the cheetah racing stripes on their necks, too. The enclosure of individuals that were several months old was interesting, too. I hadn’t realized that determining the sex of the animals required them to age so much. The ranch had quite a range of ages all mixed together.
The scientific name for the ostrich is Struthio camelus. The displays had informed us that the farm featured subspecies of ostrich from three regions: South Africa, Zimbabwe (just northeast of South Africa) and Kenya. The Zimbabwean birds are even larger than the South African ones. As our trailer passed by, the male seemed to lose his temper with the female standing nearby. It was unnerving. South Africa invested serious effort into acquiring breeding birds of “double-fluff” plumage from the rest of Africa back in 1911, but since the ostrich farms have turned their attention to leather and meat, I suspect those lines have not continued to today.
The Kenyan birds seemed much more restrained. The male bird spread his wings wide, as though showing his toughness. I imagined my older brother ghosting a punch at me and taunting me, “you live in fear.”
With that, our ostrich adventure had come to a close. Having been this close to adult ostriches, I would only say I feel more intimidated by these birds than before! I will continue to look forward to my next ostrich burger.