Ostriches belong to a striking group of flightless birds known as ratites, that also includes emus, cassowaries, rheas, and kiwis. Ratites have flat, smooth breastbones that lack a keel to which flight muscles could attach. They are thus unable to fly, and have weak wing muscles. They do use their wings, spreading them out to help them cool off, and also to splash water when bathing. Ratite feathers are different from those of flying birds. The individual strands are not interlocked, and thus they are soft and billowy and air passes right through them. Their plumes have long been admired by humans and used for decoration and adornment. As with other birds, their feathers function as protection from the elements, and ratites preen, spreading waterproofing oil to their feathers with their beaks. They also molt once a year. Ratites have heavy, strong bones and powerful leg muscles, and are able to run swiftly. They are omnivores, feeding on a variety of grasses, plants, seeds, fruit, insects, and small animals. There are many farms in the United States that raise ostriches, emus, and rheas for their feathers, hide, meat, and oil. In their native countries, ratites are hunted or raised for their feathers and as food. Ostriches have also been tamed for riding and for pulling carts.
Ostriches have long necks and legs and are the largest living birds. Males stand eight feet tall, and weigh three hundred pounds. The ostrich can take strides of twenty-five feet and outrun pursuers at speeds of forty miles per hour. If cornered, the ostrich has a powerful kick that can maim an enemy. It has two toes on each foot, and a razor-sharp toenail that both grips the ground while running and can slash the flesh of its enemy. Male ostriches are black with white plumes on their tail and wings. Females are grayish-brown. The head and legs are featherless. The neck is covered with down and is red or grayish. The ostrich has huge eyes with long protective lashes and has keen eyesight for spotting danger a long way off. It can make loud hissing and roaring noises. Ostriches are native to Africa; they are nomadic and graze on open savanna. They often follow herds of zebras or antelope, catching insects and small animals stirred up by their hooves. They swallow sand and stones to help grind up their food. Contrary to popular belief, they require a regular water supply. When mating, male ostriches make a booming call and perform a courtship dance for the females. They are polygamous, taking three or more hens as mates. The male scratches a shallow pit into which each female lays up to a dozen eggs, for a total clutch size of up to thirty eggs. This communal nesting behavior is unusual among birds. The male shares incubation with one dominant female. The male sits at night and the female during the day. Ostriches lay the largest eggs of all living birds, seven inches long and three pounds. The eggshell is very tough and hard for predators to crack open. The parent will sometimes lay with its neck outstretched on the ground when danger threatens, giving rise to the legend that they bury their heads in the sand. They may also feign injury to lure predators away from the nest. Newborn chicks are precocial and instinctively know how to search for food. They are full adults by three years of age.
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