By Gavin M. Leighton
The arid savannahs of southwestern Africa are shockingly open, and from high vantage points on clear days you can see several miles towards the horizon (above picture). That’s what makes it especially embarrassing surprising that I didn’t see a male ostrich (Struthio camelus) walk up to the edge of the tree that my research assistant and I were working at. Fortunately, we were studying sociable weavers (Philetairus socius), a small bird that builds massive communal nests (below picture) in Acacia trees with low hanging branches. These branches are studded with boot-piercing (I can attest to this personally) thorns that kept the ostrich from actually approaching us closely.
Unfortunately, we had picked a nest to study that was on the territory of a male ostrich that was in breeding condition – as evidenced by the pink flush on its legs. Given that this ostrich was potentially defending eggs somewhere in the vicinity it posed a rather serious threat to both myself and my research assistant. Ostriches typically don’t attack humans but they have a large claw on their largest toe that can be used as a weapon against other animals (including humans) – if you don’t believe me you should look up the encounter where Johnny Cash (yes, that Johnny Cash) was on the wrong side of a kick from an ostrich. It did not go well for Mr. Cash.
Doubly unfortunately, my field assistant and I had parked our field truck about 60 yards away as the ground was somewhat uneven towards the nest. And since the ostrich was simply pacing around the low-hanging canopy of the Acacia we had to make a decision on how proceed. One option was to hang out with the sociable weavers at the nest and hope the ostrich got bored or hungry. A second option was to try and intimidate using shouting and clapping – regrettably, this option failed. The final option was to have the research technician wait for me at the tree while I sprinted back to the truck. We decided on the final option.
I can honestly say I have never run faster in a pair of heavy field boots than I did that day, and while the ostrich gave tepid chase it seemed torn between pursuing me and harassing the research assistant that was now in the tree. In my mind, however, I most certainly outran an ostrich at top speed (ostriches can run at top speeds of about ~40 miles per hour so this is certainly a plausible story). Nonetheless, I made it to the truck and drove it to pick up my besieged research assistant so that we could drive away from this nest permanently. As a testament to how committed this ostrich was to harassing us it pursued the truck for over a kilometer until we reached a cattle guard that prevented it from following us farther.
Gavin Leighton is an NSF post-doctoral associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology studying questions relevant to the evolution of social behavior. Find out more about Gavin’s research at www.gavinmleighton.com