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Ostriches -- a Curious Bird Indeed

Pet Column for the week of October 9, 1995

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Linda March
Information Specialist

What is an ostrich anyway? You know, that big tall bird with a long, skinny neck, feathers,big eyes, long legs, and runs a lot.

According to Dr. Pam Walker, large animal veterinarian formerly with the University of Illinois Collegeof Veterinary Medicine at Urbana, "Ostriches are ratites. Ratites are a species of bird that
have no keel bone, are flightless, and have poorly developed pectoral muscles."

Ostriches are hind-gut fermentors like horses, while the emu another ratite, has a simple stomach more like a dog. Ostriches reach a height of about eight feet and a mature weight of 250-350 pounds. They reach sexual maturity at about 18 months when raised in captivity and can be used for breeding for up to 45 years.

An ostrich can produce three to four pounds of feathers, yield 75-90 pounds of low-cholesterol, red meat, and 12-14 square feet of leather. The hide is used to make goods such as boots, wallets, purses, and belts. The feathers are used as decorations and
placed on hats.

Ostriches can be sold as breeding pairs, chicks or eggs. The incubation time for the eggs is 42-43 days. If the owner chooses to incubate eggs, they need to be aware of the intense procedures required to get the eggs to hatch. Temperature and humidity must be closely maintained as well as making sure the eggs get turned periodically. An ostrich can lay 40-50 eggs per year if the eggs are routinely removed from the nest.

When the chicks hatch they are 10-12 inches tall and will grow up to one foot per month. Because of this rapid growth, ostriches are very prone to growth deformities causing crooked legs. Both exercise and correct diet are key to avoid crooked legs in young ostriches. The feed often used is a pelleted ratite ration along with a small amount of good quality alfalfa hay. Since ostriches are constantly pecking at things on the ground, they probably don't need extra grit added to the diet. Limiting the intake of youngsters will help
keep the calcium, phosphorous and protein levels in check to guard against leg deformities.

Ostrich chicks need 40 square feet of pen space per chick to allow adequate room for the chicks to run. Adults need over 200 yards, preferably in a rectangular shape so they can reach full running speed. "The chicks must be taught to run, but need to be encouraged in a non-stressful way. This can be a real task," notes Dr. Walker.

Being a relative to the bird, ostriches are easily stressed. The owner must make a game out of teaching the young chicks to run. Birds should be watched carefully for their interaction with each other. Some birds will feather-pick other birds or even themselves if stressed.

Another "game" that is important for the birds is the "touch me" game. This helps prepare the bird for veterinary health checks which include palpating the abdomen, drawing blood and taking the temperature. All of these procedures require the bird to be touched and handled. If the owner touches the ostrich all over in a playful way from the start, veterinary care will be less stressful for the bird, veterinarian, and owner.

Ostriches require intensive management. They are very curious creatures and will peck at anything shiny. This behavior is especially apparent when the ostriches are young. Owners should be careful about what they wear when around these birds.

"Don't wear jewelry, watches, or rings when taking care of your birds," cautions Dr. Walker. "They can snatch glasses from your face and swallow them before you have time to react."

Their constant running in the pen also works debris up from the soil. It is important to walk the pen every few days to pick up the bits of broken glass, wire, bolts or nuts that can come up to the surface from the movement of their feet.

Before purchasing an ostrich, one should do extensive research into what is involved to raise them. Talk to producers who have had success and also find out what aspects of their operation were a problem.

If you have any questions about ostriches call your veterinarian.