Ostriches are the largest birds on the planet. At over 2m tall, they tower over other birds, humans, and many other large animals. In addition to holding the record as the biggest bird, ostriches are also the fastest animal on two legs and can run a marathon in less than 45 minutes.
Male and female ostriches look different and play different roles in ostrich society. This is a guide to female ostriches.
Female ostriches are smaller than males, measuring approximately 1.7 to 2m high on average compared to 2.8m. They weigh around 100 to 115kg, which is similar to males, though males do sometimes reach a higher maximum weight of 155kg. Females have grayish-brown plumage in contrast to the male’s black plumage.
Ostriches are grouped with other large flightless birds, such as emus and cassowaries, but they differentiate from other large ratites as males rather than females dominate their breeding system.
Male ostriches mate with a harem of two to several females but often choose a ‘major female’ to form a pair bond with.
These titanic birds aren’t as stupid as they’re sometimes made out to be, and you certainly wouldn’t want to cross one in the wild. Both the male and female ostrich are capable of delivering a kick so powerful that it can kill a lion in a single blow.
There is much more to read about these gargantuan birds - so read on to find out!
Close up of a female Ostrich, South Africa
Telling adult male and female ostriches apart is very simple. The male has mostly black plumage, whereas the female is mostly gray-brown or beige.
The male is also considerably larger in some cases, measuring up to 2.5m to 2.8m tall vs. 2m for the females.
Young and juvenile ostriches are harder to tell apart. Juvenile female ostriches retain lighter brown beige feathers, whereas male juvenile ostriches gradually darken into their black plumage. This takes around 1.5 years.
Aside from size and plumage, males and females share virtually every characteristic. They have long necks, large eyes with long eyelashes, super-long powerful legs, and bulky bodies.
Female ostriches are similar to males, except for their grayish-brown or shaggy beige plumage, which strongly contrasts with the male’s black plumage. Females have pinker legs and necks, too, whereas the male legs and neck skin is slightly grayer.
While female ostriches are still huge, they’re slightly smaller than males. While a male might obtain a maximum height of 2.8m, females rarely exceed 2.2m. They’re also around 20kg lighter at 110 to 115kg on average, whereas males can reach weights of 150kg or more.
Female Ostrich (Struthio camelus) with her chicks, Kalahari desert, South Africa
Adult female ostriches are called hens. Males are called cocks or roosters.
They’re named as such because ostriches are farmed across much of Africa, so males and females share the same names as other domesticated birds, like chickens.
Male ostriches are larger than females. Sometimes, the difference is quite marginal or even unnoticeable, but a very large male ostrich can tower over younger females.
Males have a more upright posture, which makes them look even bigger than the hunched females.
Ostriches are part of the ratite group of flightless birds, including the emu, cassowaries, and rheas. Curiously, the reverse is true for these other large ratites - the females are generally larger than males.
Ostriches have a male-dominant breeding system, and the males are larger, whereas emus, ostriches, and rheas have a female-dominant mating system and the females are larger.
Male and female Ostriches, Tanzania, Africa
Male and female ostriches take on very different roles in ostrich society. Males are dominant over females and mate with two to several or so females.
However, this is flexible, and some males are observed sticking to one mate throughout the breeding season and possibly even for much of their lives. Those male ostriches that practice polygamy typically choose a ‘major female’ or ‘major hen’ to form a pair bond with.
When a male mates with multiple females, those females will lay their eggs in the same nest, starting with the major hen, which lays in the center.
The eggs are incubated by both the female and male - the male usually incubates at night and the female during the day. The male’s dark plumage helps him blend in against the night. The major hen usually incubates on behalf of all other females laying in the same nest and may discard excess eggs that don’t fit under her.
Ostriches communicate via a series of rather unmelodic hisses, grunts, honks, drums, booms, and barks. The male has a deeper voice and produces a loud, deep, and bassy boom. Females hiss and make higher-pitched noises.
Male and female Ostrich pair (Struthio Camelus), displaying plumage as part of courtship, Nairobi National Park
Male and female ostriches cooperate during incubation and take turns sitting on the eggs.
After the eggs hatch, both males and females guard the chicks. Ostrich chicks form creches of dozens of ostrich chicks guarded by a ‘supervisor’ who may be male or female. Male ostriches are usually more defensive of the chicks, however, and can take control of creches from other less dominant males or females.
If two or more creches encounter each other, the defensive adults can clash. In the ensuing fight, two creches can combine into one larger creche.
It’s highly unlikely that a female Ostrich could successfully raise young without male involvement after mating. Both males and females have highly important roles and are crucial to the success of their broods.
A flock of female Ostriches
Female ostriches are a gray-brown or beige color. Their feathers are quite shaggy and messy.
Ostriches lack the uropygial gland that other birds use to maintain their feathers while preening, making them shaggier and softer than average.
Ostriches aren’t particularly loud, but females do hiss and honk. Ostriches are most vocal during breeding, when the male emits a loud boom call, and when defending themselves, where they’ll hiss at their opponents.
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