Ostriches are the largest and fastest-running birds on the planet. Both extant species of Ostriches are endemic to the African continent, although you can see these incredible flightless birds in zoos, farms, and other captive settings across the globe.
Ostriches can use their powerful legs to travel long distances and reach impressive speeds, but they are also used to deliver a powerful kick to their enemies. So are Ostriches dangerous? Can they kill a human?
Ostriches can be very dangerous under certain circumstances. They generally avoid humans, but even wild Ostriches will defend themselves if threatened. Ostriches are most dangerous during the breeding season, a time when males fight amongst each other for dominance. Breeding male Ostriches are also quick to defend their nest sites from potential threats, including humans.
There are few records of human fatalities from Ostrich attacks. People have shared the landscape with these birds for millennia, and hunting and egg harvesting have probably resulted in countless close encounters, however. More recently, humans have begun to farm these birds commercially in Africa, Australia, and even the USA, making the potential for dangerous attacks much greater.
Most people have little to fear from Ostriches. Untrained individuals should never approach these birds on foot, and those that work with Ostriches should always be well-prepared to handle potentially dangerous animals.
This article unpacks the truth about Ostrich attacks. Read along to find out how dangerous these flightless birds are and what you can do if you find yourself under attack.
Like most other bird species, Ostriches are generally most aggressive during the breeding season
Ostriches rely on their powerful legs and keen eyesight for defense. These alert birds usually avoid predators and humans by running away at high speed. Ostriches may not be able to fly, but they can run at over 40 miles per hour (64km/h)!
When escape is not an option, Ostriches will use their powerful legs and large claws as a weapon. Ostriches face their opponent and kick forwards and downwards with one leg at a time. They cannot kick backward, like a horse, for example. Forwards kicks bring their huge claws into play, and those sharp, 4-inch (10cm) long claws can break the skin and cause serious injuries.
The spectacle of fighting Ostriches is an amazing sight and a clear reminder of the power of those kicks!
The birds can do little to protect themselves when fighting. They simply stand toe-to-toe and strike each other with vicious blows. The weaker Ostrich only needs to turn and run away when it has had enough and concedes to the more dominant individual.
Close up of an Ostriches powerful legs and claws - the weapon of choice!
Ostriches will bite when defending themselves, although their bite is not considered dangerous. The large claws and powerful legs pose a much greater risk. Tame Ostriches often peck at people, and they can be remarkably gentle. An Ostrich bite could probably hurt if the bird pecked you hard enough though.
Ostriches are most likely to be aggressive during the breeding season. At this time, the birds will enter territorial fights with other male ostriches over access to the females. Their heightened aggression persists into the breeding season when male Ostriches actively defend their nests and chicks from animals and people.
A pair of male Ostriches fighting over territory during the breeding season, on the grassy plains of the Karoo, Western Cape, South Africa
Ostriches can become tame and habituated when people feed them. They will often beg for food and peck at people in these situations. Ostriches are domesticated and farmed in many parts of the world and can be quite manageable in these situations. These birds can also become very aggressive towards humans sometimes, so it’s always best to stay cautious around them.
Ostriches are usually not aggressive towards humans. They can become dangerous if threatened, cornered, or if you approach their nest. Some Ostriches will even attack large vehicles like cars and tractors.
Ostrich attacks can be very dangerous. The birds can kick forward and downwards, which causes blunt force trauma and even lacerations from the sharp claws.
Ostriches can also knock you to the ground by ramming into you with their breast bone. The bird will continue to kick when you are down.
Ostrich attacking and chasing a human in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
Males Ostriches can be aggressive towards other males when securing breeding partners. Female Ostriches can also be aggressive towards other Ostriches, particularly at the start of the breeding season.
Ostriches are unlikely to show aggression towards other birds, although they will defend their eggs and young against other species that threaten their chicks or eggs.
The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is one such bird. These remarkable vultures throw stones against Ostrich eggs to crack the thick shell and get to the protein-rich contents.
The Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) is another bird that Ostriches need to worry about. These massive African raptors are known to prey on Ostrich chicks.
Egyptian Vultures trying to break an Ostrich egg with stones
Ostriches can attack seemingly out of the blue or they can vocalize to warn you. An aggressive Ostrich will approach and might make a deep booming call while inflating its neck.
Male Ostriches develop bright pink legs and beaks during the breeding season. This is the time when they are most aggressive. Male Ostriches can be told from the females by their black and white (not brown) plumage.
Male Ostrich during the breeding season
The average person is unlikely to find themself on the receiving end of an Ostrich attack. If you work with these animals, it is vital to have an escape route and plan in mind at all times. If you ever find yourself under attack by an angry Ostrich, try to remain calm and think logically.
Here are a few things you can try to escape the attack:
Prevention is far better than defense when dealing with dangerous animals, so steer clear of Ostriches whenever possible, especially during the breeding season. Remain in your vehicle at wildlife reserves and never approach nesting Ostriches or a breeding male with bright pink legs.
Close up of a pair of Ostriches fighting, with a powerful kick
Ostriches do not usually fight to the death, although fights can last for minutes, with each bird trading many vicious blows. Ostriches face each other while kicking forward and downward, raking across their opponent's chest and thighs. The losing Ostrich only has to turn and retreat to avoid further injury, however, so fights to the death are very unlikely if the birds have space to escape.
Ostriches have many natural enemies, including humans. The following African predators are known to hunt adult Ostriches:
Ostrich chicks are vulnerable to many smaller carnivores like jackals and even large birds of prey.
A flock of Ostriches run across the sandy desert, Tanzania
It is definitely possible that lions have been killed by Ostriches because the two species have co-existed for millions of years. An injury such as a damaged jaw or broken foot could kill a lion if it meant the cat couldn’t hunt or keep up with its pride. It would be a very rare event, however.
Ostriches have certainly killed humans. There is even a report of a Washington man killed by an Ostrich on home soil. Records of fatalities are rare, however.
It’s difficult to say just how powerful the kick of an adult Ostrich can be. Reports range from about 500 to 2000 pounds per square inch (psi) - comparable with the power of a horse kick.
There are few reliable records of deaths caused by Ostriches on a global level. Fortunately, the number of people killed each year is likely to be very low.
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