(HOST) Like many Vermonters, commentator Ruth Page has always enjoyed watching and learning about birds, but recently she turned her attention from the back-yard-feeder variety to something considerably larger.
(PAGE) Remember in the film of the Swiss Family Robinson, when the kids mounted ostriches to have a race? That showed a couple of the unusual abilities of the biggest bird on our planet. Ostriches can run short spurts at forty miles an hour and can run ten miles at thirty miles an hour. They hold their heads so level that if they’re behind tall bushes, so that you can’t see their legs, you can’t tell whether they’re running or walking.
Ostriches grow rapidly and attain eight to nine feet in height. With their small, feeble wings, they can’t fly; but their legs are enormously powerful. They have huge, bare thighs and slender, knobby legs with feet rather like hooves. They’re massive: a tall male can weigh three and hundred fifty pounds.
The birds’ handsome white plumes were collected by people as ancient as King Tut and as modern as women in 1990s America. Females liked to have the plumes decorating their hats, until the birds were so over-hunted that plumes became too costly, and it became clear the birds might be driven to extinction.
An ostrich’s eyes are about the size of billiard balls, set well apart on its head. The bird runs, sustainably, faster than most predators and has a kick so powerful it can kill a hyena in one blow. The legs have long, elastic tendons; and ostriches enjoy running so much that people studying them have no trouble getting them to run on treadmills. Scientists say the leg tendons act a little like pogo springs, so the birds can recapture most of the energy in a stride as their feet hit the ground.
If a mom is incubating a batch of her own eggs, she doesn’t mind if another female adds a few of hers. Mom number one has plenty of space and incubates them all with no extra effort. Besides, if a predator such as a vulture eats one, it’s likely to be one from the second female, near the outer edge of the nest.
Babies are no real problem for mom because she doesn’t have to feed them; newborns are a foot tall and start walking and pecking about for food almost immediately (another reason not to mind incubating another mother’s eggs). Babies grow at a dizzying pace, attaining eight or nine feet in height in one year. They eat flowers, seeds, foliage and little fruits, as well as insects and possibly small rodents or reptiles. They have been known to swallow a tennis ball and, in one case, a kitten.
After a year, mom chases her young away; they are already big enough to run at top speed. Mom is in breeding condition again and starts over. Birth is not a problem: the three-pound eggs are only one-one-hundredth as big as the mother. It’s an enchanting picture to see some twelve to sixteen babies parading along behind their parents, their tiny heads erect on long necks, their longish, skinny legs at the other end, and perfectly round, fuzzy, tummies in between.
Ruth Page has been following environmental issues for twenty years. She is a long time Vermont resident and currently lives in Shelburne.