Ostrich Domestication - Really? Who Domesticated Them?

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 90-135 kilograms (200-300 pounds). Adult males attain a height of up to 2.4 meters tall (7.8 feet); females are slightly smaller. Their immense body size and small wings makes 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. Ostrich chicks are docile, but adult birds become quite aggressive towards humans, no matter how gentle the raising process. See Bonato et al. for a discussion.

There are a handful of recognized modern sub-species, 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 4-5 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 7.7-18.5 kilometers (4.8-11.5 miles) per day, with an average home range of about 84.3 km (52 mi).

They can run up to 70 km (44 mi) per hour when necessary, with a single stride of up to 8 m (26 ft). 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 egg shell (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 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 which increased the number of grasses, but 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. See Kurochkin et al. for more information.

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: eggs measure up to 16 centimeters long (6 inches), and can carry up to 1 liter (about 1 quart) 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 the ivory ostrich feather fan illustrated here. There is documented evidence of ostrich riding since the first millennium BC at the Sumerian site of Kish.

However, 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. By the end of World War II, the market for feathers crashed, but the industry managed to survive by broadening the market to meat and hides.

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Animal Domestication, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Al-Talhi D. 2012. Almulihiah: a rock art site in the Hail region, Saudi Arabia. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 23(1):92-98.

Bonato M, Malecki IA, Wang MD, and Cloete SWP. 2013. Extensive human presence at an early age of ostriches improves the docility of birds at a later stage of life. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 148(3–4):232-239.

doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.08.003

Brysbaert A. 2013. 'The Chicken or the Egg?' Interregional Contacts Viewed Through a Technological Lens at Late Bronze Age Tiryns, Greece. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32(3):233-256. doi: 10.1111/ojoa.12013

d'Errico F, Backwell L, Villa P, Degano I, Lucejko JJ, Bamford MK, Higham TFG, Colombini MP, and Beaumont PB. 2012. Early evidence of San material culture represented by organic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(33):13214-13219. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1204213109

Janz L, Elston RG, and Burr GS. 2009. Dating North Asian surface assemblages with ostrich eggshell: implications for palaeoecology and extirpation. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(9):1982-1989. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.05.012

Kurochkin EN, Kuzmin YV, Antoshchenko-Olenev IV, Zabelin VI, Krivonogov SK, Nohrina TI, Lbova LV, Burr GS, and Cruz RJ.

2010. The timing of ostrich existence in Central Asia: AMS 14C age of eggshells from Mongolia and southern Siberia (a pilot study). Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms 268(7–8):1091-1093. 10.1016/j.nimb.2009.10.106

Shanawany MM. 1995.

Recent developments in ostrich farming. World Animal Review 83(2).