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Struthio camelus (Common ostrich)

Volstruis [Afrikaans]; Inciniba [Xhosa]; iNtshe [Zulu]; Mpšhe, Mpshoe [South Sotho]; Mpšhe [North Sotho]; Mhou, Mhowani [Shona]; Inshi [Swazi]; Yinca [Tsonga]; Mpshe, Ntšhe [Tswana]; Struisvogel [Dutch]; Autruche d'Afrique [French]; Strauß [German]; Avestruz [Portuguese]

 Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Struthioniformes > Family: Struthionidae

Struthio camelus (Common ostrich) Struthio camelus (Common ostrich)
Common ostrich, male, Durbanville, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo Duncan Robertson ©] Common ostrich, female. [photo Jeff Poklen ©]

Distribution and habitat

Natural distribution is in the drier regions of Africa, including southern Africa, the Sahel, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. Once occurred in Arabia and Syria. It generally prefers open savanna woodland, arid and semi-arid grassland and shrubland, and open desert plains. 

Distribution of Common ostrich in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  



Recorded by Clem Hagner, Plettenberg Bay 1963, [© Transvaal Museum]



Herbivorous, eating green plant food predominantly, with a preference for small herbs and grasses. Pooled observations of ostriches by Milton et al. (1994) across a range of vegetation types showed that they eat 39% green shoots, 12% leaves, 17% flowers, 4% fruits and seeds, and 28% small, uprooted plants. Unpalatable and toxic plants avoided by ostriches tend to be similar to those avoided by mammalian herbivores such as sheep (Milton et al., 1994).

Under artificial conditions, young birds have eaten Harvester termites Microhodotermes viator and tenebrionid beetle larvae but this is unknown in wild birds.


  • One male holds a territory and mates with up to four females (i.e. he is polygamous). The females each have home ranges that they do not defend and which overlap with one another. Their home ranges do not coincide with the male territories and are larger.
  • A territorial male drives other males out of his territory but displays to females he encounters. Successful displaying can be followed by copulation. 
  • A nest consists of a scrape in the ground, 2-3 m across. Nests are made by the male and he makes a number of them within his territory. 
  • A male shows a female the nests in his territory. If the female accepts a scrape, she lies in it and she is termed the 'major' female if she is the first to do so. 
  • The major female starts the egg laying, laying them at 2-3 day intervals. Minor females also lay eggs in the nest, usually on days when the major is not laying. 
  • Clutch size can range from 4 to 78 eggs per nest, but in South Africa, normal clutch size range is 4-26, averaging 13.  Large clutches are the result of additional eggs laid by minor females.
  • Eggs each weigh 1.22 - 1.75 kg, have a volume of 0.742 - 1.420 litres, and measure 12.2 - 15.8 mm long by 11.0 - 13.0 cm wide.
  • Incubation of the eggs by the major female starts about 16 days after she laid the first egg and lasts 39 - 53 days. She incubates for most of the day and then the male takes over from late afternoon and continues through the night. He also sometimes relieves the female from incubating on very hot days. 
  • Evidently the major female recognizes her own eggs and keeps them near the centre of the clutch, pushing minor female eggs to the periphery where they are not incubated and usually fail to hatch.
  • The chicks hatch out over a period of 3-5 days. Chicks do not have an egg tooth and instead break out of their eggs by contracting their muscles - this takes a long time: about nine hours. 
  • Young are nourished through their first four days by yolk reserves inside them which take up about a quarter of their body mass. 
  • After three days in the nest, the young leave the nest with the adults and feed with the adults. Sometimes they form up into creches with up to 60 young of different ages from different nests.
  • Parents care for young for about nine months. Potential predators are warded off by the adult pretending to be injured and drawing the predator away from the young. They can also threaten the predator by running towards it with opened wings and lowered head.
  • Survival rates can be low. A study in Kenya showed that only 36% of the eggs in a nest were incubated (the rest were eggs laid laid by minor females). Of the incubated eggs, only 33% hatched, resulting in 7.5 young on average being produced per nest. Only about 12% of these young survived to adulthood (0.9 survivors per nest). In South Africa, chicks die from the sudden onset of cold, wet spells and they are also susceptible to internal parasites. 


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG (eds) 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.