Friday, November 21, 2014

Known for his extravagance, legend has it that the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus served the brains of 600 ostrich at a feast. Assuming there were plenty of guests, as there were typically at feasts in ancient Rome, this menu item couldn’t have been particularly filling. After all, an ostrich’s brain is said to be smaller than a spoon. Then again, one could argue that this would in turn depend on the size of the spoon.

All the better to see you with

Regardless, an ostrich has a small head with a brain significantly smaller than its eyes. With eyes as large as billiard balls, the largest of any land animal, there’s hardly enough room for a sizeable brain. However, in spite of its eye-brain ratio, gawky appearance with long skinny legs and neck, this fascinating bird has much to recommend it.

Spindly yet deadly legs

For starters, the notion that ostriches bury their heads in the sand is a complete myth. While flightless, an ostrich can sprint at a speed of up to 70 kilometres per hour. They wouldn’t have been able to survive for millions of years if they plonked their heads in the sand at the first sign of danger. If frightened they whiz off at top speed, lie flat against the ground or use their lethal legs to lash out at predators. In fact, ostriches have been known to kill animals larger than themselves with their Kung fu-like forward kick. The very same lethal legs are used to attract the ladies.

Courtship begins on the dance floor

Courtship usually begins with the male crouching down to perform a rhythmic dance to attract females. It’s amusing to watch the gentleman caller waving his outspread wings and throwing his head from side to side while booming or roaring like a lion. The wooed lady will sit down for mating to begin. It isn’t uncommon for males to have harems of between two to seven sweethearts but he forms a life-long mating partnership with one “dominant” female only.

Tough egg to crack

The dominant female incubates all the eggs, her own and those of the rest of the harem. She sits on them by day and Dad takes over at night. Ostrich eggs, the largest of any extant bird are more than twenty times the weight of an average chicken egg. In fact, it’s possible to make a scramble for twelve people with just one ostrich egg. Be warned though. This isn’t a one handed egg cracking exercise. Not by a long shot. It requires some serious implements and a great deal of patience.

Of shepherds and sheep

On either side of the Swartberg Mountain Range, a couple of hours from Cape Town, you’ll find the Karoo. It’s known for it’s distinctive climate and dramatic natural landscape. It’s also known for its sheep. Take a good look when driving through. You might spot a flock of sheep being herded by a diligent shepherd with decidedly long legs and eyes the size of billiard balls. Refrain from stepping out of your vehicle to get a closer look. At full pace, the stride of an ostrich can reach 16 feet.

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