The History of Ostriches and Humans

Ostriches are difficult to get along with--but then, so are humans!

Two male and one female ostriches, Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana.
Two male and one female ostriches, Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana. Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are the largest bird alive today, with adults weighing between 200–300 pounds (90-135 kilograms). Adult males attain a height of up to 7.8 feet (2.4 meters) tall; females are slightly smaller. Their immense body size and small wings make them incapable of flying. Ostriches have a remarkable tolerance to heat, withstanding temperatures up to 56 degrees C (132 degrees F) without much stress. Ostriches have been domesticated for only about 150 years, and are truly only partly domesticated, or, rather, are only domesticated for a short period of their lives.

Key Takeaways: Ostrich Domestication

  • Ostriches were domesticated (and only partly) in South Africa in the mid-19th century. 
  • South African farmers and their British colonial overlords were responding to an enormous demand for fluffy ostrich feathers used in Victorian-era fashions.
  • Although they are adorable as chicks, ostriches are not good pets, because they quickly grow into bad-tempered giants with sharp claws. 

Ostriches as Pets?

Keeping ostriches in zoos as exotic pets was practiced in Bronze Age Mesopotamia at least as early as the 18th century BCE. Assyrian annals mention ostrich hunts, and some royal kings and queens kept them in zoos and harvested them for eggs and feathers. Although some modern day people do attempt to keep ostriches as pets, no matter how gently you raise them, within a year, the cute fluffy juvenile ball grows to a 200-pound behemoth with sharp claws and the temperament to use them.​

Far more common and successful is ostrich farming, producing red meat similar to beef or venison, and leather goods from the hides. The ostrich market is variable, and as of the 2012 agricultural census, there are just a few hundred ostrich farms in the U.S.

Ostrich Life Cycle

There are a handful of recognized modern sub-species of ostrich, including four in Africa, one in Asia (Struthio camelus syriacus, which has been extinct since the 1960s) and one in Arabia (Struthio asiaticus Brodkorb). Wild species are known to have been present in North Africa and Central Asia, although today they are restricted to sub-Saharan Africa. South American ratite species are only distantly related, including Rhea americana and Rhea pennata.

Wild ostriches are grass eaters, usually concentrating on a handful of annual grasses and forbs that yield essential protein, fiber, and calcium. When they don't have a choice, they will eat leaves, flowers, and fruits of non-grassy plants. Ostriches mature at between four and five years of age and have a lifespan in the wild of up to 40 years. They are known to travel in the Namib desert between 5 to 12 miles (8–20 kilometers) per day, with an average home range of about 50 mi (80 km). They can run up to 44 mi (70 km) per hour when necessary, with a single stride of up to 26 ft (8 m). It has been suggested that Upper Paleolithic Asian ostriches migrated seasonally, as an adaptation to climate change.

Ancient Appearance: Ostrich as Megafauna

Ostriches are of course an ancient prehistoric bird, but they show up in the human record as ostrich eggshell (often abbreviated OES) fragments and beads from archaeological sites beginning about 60,000 years ago. Ostriches, along with mammoth, were among the last Asian megafaunal species (defined as animals which weigh more than 100 kg) to become extinct. Radiocarbon dates on archaeological sites associated with OES begin near the end of the Pleistocene, late in Marine Isotope Stage 3 (ca. 60,000–25,000 years ago). Central Asian ostriches went extinct during the Holocene (what archaeologists call the last 12,000 years or so).

The east Asian ostrich Struthio anderssoni, native to the Gobi Desert, was among the megafaunal species that went extinct during the Holocene: they survived the Last Glacial Maximum only to apparently be done in by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. That increase also increased the number of grasses, but it negatively impacted the forage availability in the Gobi. In addition, it is possible that human over-use during the terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene might have occurred, as mobile hunter-gatherers moved into the region.

Human Use and Domestication

Beginning in the late Pleistocene, ostriches were hunted for their meat, their feathers, and their eggs. Ostrich shell eggs were likely hunted for the protein in their yolks but were also very useful as light, strong containers for water. Ostrich eggs measure up to 6 inches (16 centimeters) long and can carry up to one quart (about one liter ) of fluid.

Ostriches were first kept in captivity during the Bronze Age, in a tamed and semi-domesticated state, in gardens of Babylon, Nineveh, and Egypt, as well as later in Greece and Rome. Tutankhamun's tomb included images of hunting the birds with a bow and arrow, as well as a very fancy ivory ostrich feather fan. There is documented evidence of ostrich riding since the first millennium BCE at the Sumerian site of Kish.

European Trade and Domestication

The full domestication of the ostrich was not attempted until the mid-19th century when South African farmers established farms solely for harvesting the plumage. At the time, and indeed for several centuries before that and since, ostrich feathers were in high demand by fashionistas from Henry VIII to Mae West. Feathers can be harvested from the ostrich every six to eight months without ill effects.

During the first decade of the 20th century, ostrich feathers used in the fashion industry had driven the value per pound to that nearly equal to that of diamonds. Most of the feathers came from Little Karoo, in the Western Cape region of southern Africa. That was because, in the 1860s, the British colonial government had actively facilitated export-oriented ostrich raising.

The Darker Side of Ostrich Farming

According to historian Sarah Abrevaya Stein, in 1911 the Trans-Saharan Ostrich Expedition took place. That involved a British-government sponsored corporate espionage group who snuck into French Sudan (chased by American and French corporate spies) to steal 150 Barbary ostriches, famed for their "double fluff" plumes, and brought them back to Cape Town to be inbred with the stock there.

By the end of World War II, though, the market for feathers crashed—by 1944, the only market for the fanciest of plumes was on cheap plastic Kewpie dolls. The industry managed to survive by broadening the market to meat and hides. Historian Aomar Boum and Michael Bonine have argued that the European capitalist passion for ostrich plumes decimated both wild animal stocks and African livelihoods based on wild ostriches.

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