Can Ostriches Fly? Fascinating Evolution Facts For Kids

Rhea Nischal
Feb 03, 2023 By Rhea Nischal
Originally Published on Oct 15, 2021
Fact-checked by Gowri Rao
Common ostrich in nature.
Age: 3-18
Read time: 7.4 Min

The ostrich is a large bird whose body is colored in black and white or brown.

It stands tall at 9 ft (2.7 m) on its long legs, possessing characteristic large wings and a long neck. But can this huge bird fly?

The answer is no. Despite having wings, the ostrich is a flightless bird. Its wings are weak and cannot support its bodyweight while flying.

It is a flightless bird that lost its ability to take flight as it evolved. There are about 60 living species of flightless birds that consist of ratites such as the emu, the cassowary, the ostrich, the kiwi, and the rhea. Read on to learn fascinating ostrich facts and learn how many birds evolved into flightlessness!

If you enjoy this article, why not also read about can peacocks fly and can penguins fly here on Kidadl?

Is an ostrich a bird?

The ostrich is the largest extant species of all flightless birds. The adult male of this species stands approximately 9 ft (2.7 m) tall and weighs about 330 lb (149.6 kg). The neck comprises about half of the total height.

The female ostrich is smaller in size. Eggs of an ostrich are about 6 in (15.2 cm) long and have an average diameter of 5 in (12.7 cm). Astonishingly, ostrich eggs weigh about 3 lb (1.3 kg), making them the largest eggs in the world.

The male is predominantly black and possesses white-colored plumes while the female is mainly brown. Its wingspan is approximately 6.5 ft (2 m) long.

Wings are used to anchor it, are a major part of courtship displays, hide the skin of its legs' upper side, and cover chicks. The majority of the neck and its head is bluish to reddish in color.

Feathers look thick and unkempt as they do not curve like those of other flying birds. It also has a wide and short bill.

Its legs are bare and possess strong thighs. Its head is small in size and has brown-colored big eyes with long lashes of black color.

Its eyes are the largest of all the eyes of land animals. They are about 1.9 in (5 cm) wide and are able to spot dangerous predators from a distance.

Ironically, even though the ostrich has the largest eyes of all land animals, it has a very small brain. The ostrich is the heaviest and largest living bird that cannot fly as its wings cannot even lift it off the ground. However, it is an excellent runner.

There are strong thighs present that allow the ostrich to sprint at speed of 43 mph (69.2 kph). It can even run at a speed of 30 mph (48.2 kph) at a stretch for 10 mi (16 km).

It is the animal kingdom's best long-distance runner. The running is supported by its feet that have two toes each.

For comparison, other birds have four toes. It also possesses a huge nail on its inner toe.

It is known to feed upon grain, plants, small animals, insects, and seeds. As it does not have any teeth present in its mouth, it swallows stones that help it to grind and digest food.

An adult can be found carrying 2.2 lb (1 kg) of stones at any given time. It is an animal that prefers to dwell in small-sized flocks which are led by one female and one male.

Why can't ostriches fly?

Flightless birds like the cassowary, the rhea, the kiwi, the emu, and the ostrich cannot fly. Breastbones of these birds do not possess the keel that anchors the flight muscles.

The weak wing muscles that they possess cannot carry the heavy weight of their bodies. The wings are not strong enough to lift a body weighing approximately 330 lb (149.6 kg) off the ground.

To make up for their flightlessness, they run very fast. They can run as fast as 43 mph (69.2 kph) and have an average speed of 31 mph (49.8 kph).

Wings do have a function. They help the ostrich in maintaining its balance while walking and running. The long legs of an ostrich have the ability to walk 10-16 ft (3-4.8 m) in one step.

The legs are extremely strong and can deliver powerful kicks that can kill a predator such as a lion and even a human. Ostriches are known to fight off others with their two-toed feet that have sharp and long claws.

Group of Common Ostriches

How did ostriches evolve to not fly?

Ostriches and many other bird species are known to have evolved to not fly due to changes in their DNA. DNA is known to control genes. Genes are parts of DNA that produce proteins and contain instructions.

These proteins are known to perform tasks in the body. However, DNA does not possess any protein. It manages the genes, specifically controlling which gene carries forward and which doesn't.

DNA is known for regulating the activity of genes. Small changes that DNA causes can add up and cause animals to evolve with time. It is, however, tough to figure out when exactly DNA causes evolutionary changes.

Evolutionary scientists discovered that bits of DNA in ratites had changed quite fast resulting in them losing their original purposes. It is also known that evolution took place the fastest when the mutation rate increased.

It is during this time DNA stopped performing its original functions and birds lost their beloved ability to fly. It was also found out by evolutionary scientists that ratites lost flight about three to five times causing them to become flightless permanently.

Similar Birds And Their Flying Abilities

Rheas, kiwis, ostriches, emus, tinamous, elephant birds, moa (extinct), and cassowaries are members of ratites, a group of birds. All of them are flightless except the tinamous.

The DNA of these flightless birds was studied by evolutionary scientists to discover the reason behind their flightlessness. It was discovered that the DNA's mutations led to ratites losing their ability to take flight.

Kiwis, rheas, ostriches, moas (extinct), emus, and elephant birds are all flightless species in which the wing bones are either small for their size and body weight or are absent.

These flightless birds evolved to flightlessness at different times. Breastbones of these birds are flat and the keel that is known to anchor the flying muscles is absent.

Wings of these ratites are weak and are not able to lift the body from the ground.

As they can't fly, they have large-sized bodies with powerful and long legs, making them excellent runners. Tinamous are closely related to these birds and have the ability to fly.

It is speculated that ancestors of the flightless bird species lost their ability to fly, including the tinamous.

However, the tinamous got its ability again and did not lose it, unlike other birds who lost it due to DNA changes.

All ratites can be traced back to a common flying ancestor on the evolutionary tree providing us with a glimpse of the origination of flightlessness, showing how lineages lost their ability to take flight about 70-90 million years ago, except the tinamous.

It is hypothesized by scientists that the southern part of the supercontinent Pangea (100 million years ago) broke up, splitting the population of ratites of that time.

These ancestors of the present-day ratites ultimately spread into different parts of the present-day world and evolved into different species. Present-day landlocked ratites include kiwis and extinct moas of New Zealand, the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar, cassowaries, emus of Australia, the rhea of South America, and ostriches of Africa.

This theory explains how these birds of the same origin spread to different parts of the present-day world.

Did You Know...

Ostriches were well-renowned for the luxurious and long feathers they possessed. These feathers were used in late 19th and early 20th centuries to makes capes, hats, fans, and boas for females. During this time, ostrich feathers were the same price as that of a pound of diamonds!

Ostriches wandered the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and Asia before humans became a danger for them. They currently dwell in present-day sub-Saharan Africa's savannas and woodlands.

Ostriches belong to the order Struthioniformes which is the same as that of a rhea, a kiwi, an emu, and a cassowary.

The national symbol of New Zealand is the kiwi bird.

Some people raise ostriches for their meat.

Eggs of an ostrich are laid in a dump nest which is a communal nest that holds approximately 60 eggs. They are incubated by both females and males for 42-46 days.

Females are observed to hide babies from predators while the male distracts predators away from them.

Many people believe that an ostrich buries its head into the sand if it feels it is in danger. However, that is not true as they lie down on the ground with their heads low. This might look like it has buried its head into the sand from a distance, but in reality, it hasn't.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for can ostriches fly then why not take a look at can monkeys swim, or common ostrich facts.

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Written by Rhea Nischal

Bachelor of Business Administration specializing in Management

Rhea Nischal picture

Rhea NischalBachelor of Business Administration specializing in Management

A background in Business Administration and Management from MCM DAV College, Rhea has led her to work for her father's global business. However, her passion for content production, where she manages operations to ensure all processes run smoothly. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the piano and spending time with her one-year-old nephew.

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Fact-checked by Gowri Rao

Bachelor of Arts specializing in Economics

Gowri Rao picture

Gowri RaoBachelor of Arts specializing in Economics

With a bachelor's degree in Economics from Krea University, Gowri is a highly skilled data analyst and an expert in regression and causation modeling. Her interests in economic trends, finance, and investment research complement her professional expertise. In addition to her professional pursuits, Gowri enjoys swimming, running, and playing the drums, and she is also a talented tutor.

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