The Ostrich

After the extinction of the elephant birds of Madagascar and the giant moas of New Zealand less than 1,000 years ago, the common ostrich (Struthio camelus) is now the world’s largest extant species of bird. Found across the savannas and semi-deserts of Africa, this huge ratite also lays the largest eggs of any living bird. The common ostrich is one of two species of ostrich, the other being the Somali ostrich.

Ostrich
A male ostrich scanning over the African savanna.

Males of this species can reach a mighty 9 feet in height and weigh as much as two adult humans. Despite its size, the ostrich can hit speeds of over 40 mph – the fastest land speed of any bird. It’s clear to see that this hefty flightless bird is not lacking in world records. Ostriches exhibit sexual dimorphism; the males have a bold, black plumage whilst females have a greyish-brown plumage. Both sexes have an almost bare head and neck. It is thought that these ostriches have the largest eyes of any land vertebrate – around two inches in diameter. Their beady eyes help them to see predators from a distance.

For me, the most impressive aspect of the ostrich is their prehistoric, two-toed feet. Each toe has a long, sharp claw resembling that of a velociraptor. These feet can be powerful weapons. A kick from an adult ostrich can kill a human or a potential predator such as a lion. Most birds have four toes on each foot but the ostrich’s two-toed feet assist in running.

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You could imagine seeing this in Jurassic Park.

Ostriches mainly feed on grasses, seeds, shrubs, fruits and flowers but will also eat insects and lizards when available. Their large size and seemingly vulnerable build makes them a tasty target for a whole host of predators. Lions, cheetahs, leopards, painted wolves and spotted hyenas just to name a few. The nests where they lay their large eggs attract smaller predators in the food chain such as jackals, mongooses and vultures.

Female ostriches will lay their eggs in a communal nest. The dominant female will lay 7-10 eggs in the centre of the nest and the other females lay their eggs around them. These nests can hold up to 60 eggs. This seems like a lot of eggs, but it is thought that fewer than 10% of nests survive the 9 week incubation period, and of the surviving chicks, only 15% make it through their first year.

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A male (left) with two females (right).

Ostriches have developed an ingenious method of incubation to avoid predators. During the day, females will incubate the eggs because their dusty colouration blends in with the sand. However, during the night, males will takeover because their coal-coloured feathers make them almost indistinguishable at night. Ostrich chicks are cute and cuddly in appearance. They are cream in colour with a charming pattern of dark spots along their head and neck.

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Although ostriches occupy a vast range their numbers are declining, largely due to habitat loss. I am hopeful that the ostrich will live on for centuries to come and we won’t have repeat the history of the elephants birds of Madagascar and the giant moas of New Zealand. Today, we are knowledgeable enough to understand the consequences of our actions and we are the only ones able to control those actions.

 

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/o/ostrich/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_ostrich

https://animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/ostrich/

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Grey Crowned Crane

Named for its crown of stiff golden feathers, the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) rules over the savannahs of Southern and Eastern Africa. They may also be found in wetter habitats such as marshes and around lakes. Although its plumage is mainly grey, it exhibits shades of white, gold, red and black. They reach around 1 metre in height and even wander around like royalty – with their entire body postured upright.

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African crowned cranes (which includes the closely related black crowned crane) are the only cranes that can grip branches, enabling them to roost up in trees. Grey crowned cranes have a spectacular breeding display. Jumping, dancing and bowing are just some of the tactics used to attract a mate. They also deploy a booming call by inflating their red gular sac (the bit of red skin beneath their chin). Once they have successfully mated and created their nest, grey crowned cranes will lay a clutch 2-5 eggs.

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A pair engaging in a courtship ritual.

Omnivorous, these birds have a varied diet. Examples include grasses, seeds, insects, frogs, snakes, worms and small fish. They have adopted an effective hunting mechanism, stamping their feet as they walk to flush out insects and other invertebrates. A similar strategy is used when they follow larger grazing herbivores such as antelopes and rhinos, except they don’t have to do any work. They simply follow these mammals and swiftly devour any small creatures turned up by the passing grazer. This is an example of commensalism. Commensalism is a form of symbiosis (a biological interaction between two organisms) in which one organisms benefits whilst the other is unaffected. In this case, the grey crowned crane benefits and the grazing mammal is unaffected.

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Sadly, these royal birds are endangered. Grey crowned cranes face a plethora of ongoing threats. Drainage of the natural wetlands in their habitat is leaving them with fewer places to nest. Overgrazing by livestock is limiting their availability of food. Pesticide pollution is interfering with the delicate ecological balance of Africa. Live capture and egg collection for commercial trade is also a detrimental threat to these cranes. However, organisations such as the International Crane Foundation are helping to conserve this species. By improving and enforcing harsher policies that strengthen the consequences of the illegal wildlife trade, they hope to reduce the atrocity of this trade. Moreover, they are encouraging methods to minimise the conflict between grey crowned cranes and traditional farmers.

One of the things I can do is to spread a wider awareness for the status of these cranes and the threats they face. As the national animal of Uganda, the grey crowned crane even appears on the country’s flag. They are unique in both appearance and behaviour and play a great ecological role. Their reign is not yet over.

 

Sources:

https://www.savingcranes.org/species-field-guide/grey-crowned-crane/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_crowned_crane

http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/grey-crowned-crane-balearica-regulorum

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Bee Hummingbird

The bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) is the smallest species of bird on earth. Confined to Cuba, this tiny bird rarely exceeds 6cm in length. Females are slightly larger than the males but still only weigh up to 2.6 grams. To put it in perspective, the bee hummingbird is hardly larger than the diameter of a golf ball and weighs roughly the same as a penny.

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A male bee hummingbird.

Despite their unbelievably small size, bee hummingbirds are swift and skilful flyers. Hummingbirds have the fastest metabolism of any animal in the world, and this is important because the smallest hummingbirds beat their wings over 80 times per second. This rapid wing flapping creates a humming noise, hence their name. In addition, their heart rate can reach over 1,000 beats a minute.

The hummingbird’s extraordinary in-flight adaptations allow it to hover mid-air and even fly backwards (to add to their list of achievements, hummingbirds are also the only bird able to fly backwards). The bee hummingbird is especially wondrous in this respect as it can carry out all of these elegant manoeuvres whilst being not much larger than a bee.

Bee Hummingbird
A female bee hummingbird.

Bee hummingbirds exhibit a vivid plumage during their breeding season. The males display iridescent reddish pink feathers on their head and neck with an array of ocean blues and aqua greens on their upper side. The females have green upper parts and a pale, grey underside. They are truly beautiful little birds.

The bee hummingbird’s diet almost entirely consists of nectar from flowers belonging to a few specific plant species. Bee hummingbirds have some natural predators – including other large birds such as hawks, falcons and kestrels – but their small size and agility usually gives them an edge above their enemies.

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An especially vibrant male bee hummingbird.

A recent fall in the bee hummingbird’s population has raised some concerns, and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has listed their status as ‘Near Threatened’. Their primary threat is habitat loss. It would be heartbreaking to see their population dwindle any further. The bee hummingbird is the master of superlatives and I hope this post has made their brilliance clear.

 

Sources:

http://www.animalspot.net/bee-hummingbird.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bee_hummingbird

https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/Species-Account/nb/species/beehum1/overview

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummingbird

Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.

The Wild Turkey

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be nice to pay some appreciation to the quintessential Christmas meat – the turkey. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a fascinating, ground-dwelling bird native to North America, and carries a huge historical significance. Their name originates from Britain, whereby domesticated turkeys were being imported to Britain in ships arriving from a region in and around the country of Turkey.

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An adult male turkey displaying his magnificent plumage.

Wild turkeys are omnivorous birds that typically feed on forest floors, consuming a varied diet of nuts, seeds, insects, fruits and salamanders. They prefer hardwood forests with scattered openings such as marshes, swamps, grasslands, fields and orchards.

Prior to America’s colonisation, the Native Americans regularly hunted wild turkeys for their undoubtedly delicious meat. When Europeans arrived, they quickly domesticated the birds and wild turkeys were unsustainably hunted, causing their numbers to plummet during the 19th and 20th century, and their status became increasingly insecure. Thankfully, in the 1940s, reintroduction programmes began which established new populations in recovering forests and woodlands across North America.

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An adult male (left) and female (right) competing in a staring contest.

Male and female turkeys are dissimilar in appearance, exhibiting a range of different characteristics (this is known as sexual dimorphism). Adult males, also called toms or gobblers, are much larger than females, known as hens, and have a thick, glossy black plumage, sometimes showing areas of purple, red, copper and bronze. They also have a white-tipped tail which becomes fanned out when displaying to a potential partner. However, most noticeably, males have an intense bald, reddish head with red wattles drooping down from their throat and neck. Additionally, they flaunt a long, red fleshy flap over their beak – called a snood. In contrast, female turkeys have a duller plumage of brown and grey tones and lack many of the distinctive characteristics of the males.

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A lone female turkey.

Males can weigh up to 10kg, whereas females seldom exceed 5kg. Despite their relatively large weight, wild turkeys are agile, fast flyers and can comfortably traverse through the obstacles in their woodland habitat. Wild turkeys share their habitat with a plethora of predators including coyotes, gray wolves, cougars, bobcats, Canadian lynx, black bears and eagles – but these seemingly slow-witted birds are not completely defenceless. Adult turkeys, especially males, can be quite aggressive to potential threats; they may kick, bite or even ram in order to deter predators. Surprisingly, wild turkeys can run 40 kilometres per hour in short bursts – nearly as fast as Usain Bolt’s maximum sprinting speed.

I hope this post allowed you to learn a bit more about the turkey, and gave you a greater appreciation for their lifestyle, unique characteristics and abilities. Happy Holidays!

The Emperor Penguin

Running with the Dynasties theme, I decided that today I would write about the world’s largest penguin – the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Endemic to Antarctica, the emperor penguin is a near-threatened species which lives in huge colonies on the Antarctic ice and in the surrounding waters. They are the only penguin which breeds in winter and during their breeding season they form breeding colonies with thousands of individuals.

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Adult males and females are similar in size, reaching up to around 45 inches tall. They have a fascinatingly beautiful plumage with a black head and back juxtaposing their white belly. Most noticeably though, they have those distinctive, bright-yellow ear patches which slowly fade into a paler colour further down the penguin’s chest.

These penguins have a tough time caring for their young. During the bitter polar winters, females will lay a single egg and males will incubate this egg whilst the females go out in search of food for the youngster. Their diet consists predominantly of fish, crustaceans and molluscs but the proportions of this prey will vary between different areas.

Emperor Penguin
The breeding season is a gruelling but rewarding time for these penguins.

For me, the most captivating thing about these birds it their wonderfully unique adaptations – a testament to the unbelievable power of evolution. First of all, a structural adaptation is the shape of their body; it is perfectly streamlined to glide through the ocean with little resistance. Moreover, to cope with the freezing polar temperatures, they have evolved a thick layer of fat and dense feathers which help to reduce heat loss. However, their thick blubber impedes their movement on land – that’s partly why they waddle around like drunk teenagers. One of their most obvious adaptations is the way they huddle together to conserve their warmth and escape from the winds of winter. The emperor penguins take turns being on the perilous edge of this crowd so no one is left exposed to the elements for too long.

Yet another adaptation is the way they survive the immense ocean pressures when they go for deep dives, these dives can last for over 20 minutes and these penguins can plummet down to 1,850 feet deep (deeper than any other bird)! During these dives, the emperor penguin’s oxygen use is greatly reduced as their heart rate drops from 70 beats per minute at resting rate to 20 beats per minute. In addition to this, their non-essential organs are shut down, meaning oxygen can be focused on their vital organs, allowing for longer dives. I could go on about this bird’s magnificent adaptations but I would be here for quite a while because there are so many.

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When underwater, these birds are agile torpedoes.

Sadly, in 2012, the emperor penguin was uplisted from least concern to near-threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Their threats include habitat loss, industrial fisheries, disease, human disturbance (particularly unsustainable tourism) and most significantly, climate change. Global warming is melting the sea ice where they live. The current loss of their habitat is not sustainable and it is not slowing down. The protection and conservation of these penguins, and all other threatened species in fragile habitats, requires a global effort.

Tonight, at 8pm (UK time, GMT+0) the second episode of Dynasties airs where Sir David Attenborough will be narrating a no-doubt thrilling story about emperor penguins and the daily struggles they endure on the continent of Antarctica.