Ostriches are the largest birds in the world and are a fascinating sight for those lucky enough to spot one in the wild. While these birds are native to Africa, we know that many species have spread beyond their lands of origin, often with the help of humans. Though ostriches are not naturally found on the continent, there is a tiny population of these flightless birds that live in Australia.

In this article, we’ll discuss how ostriches first came to be in Australia, as well as how they ended up in the wild there. We’ll also discuss the flightless bird that you’re more likely to spot while birdwatching in Australia.divider-birdcage

How Ostriches Arrived In Australia

In the 19th century, ostrich feathers were prized as fashion accessories, particularly on women’s hats. To keep up with the demand, humans began establishing ostrich farms both on the African continent and in other countries around the world with similar warm climates. One of those countries was Australia.

Ostrich farms first appeared in Australia in the 1890s, but ostrich farming and the feather trade faded in popularity globally after World War I. Another attempt at establishing ostrich farms in Australia occurred during the 1970s. However, these farms failed as well, and when they did, the ostriches that lived on them escaped or were released into the wild.

Because ostriches can live up to 50 years, it’s believed the birds still occasionally spotted are the same ones released when the farms failed.

Ostrich standing in a dry field
Image Credit: polyfish, Pixabay

How Ostriches Survived In Australia

Australia has a similar climate and terrain as the ostriches’ native African territory. This similarity likely allowed the formerly captive birds to survive. Surviving and thriving, however, are two different things.

Ostriches struggle to produce fertile eggs and healthy chicks in Australia, which is one reason why farming them proved difficult. Also, there are not enough wild birds to establish a breeding population. Once the original birds die off, there will likely no longer be wild ostriches in Australia.

There is still one successful ostrich farm in Australia, which raises the birds for meat, feathers, and leather.

Are Ostriches Endangered Worldwide?

Although their population in Africa is decreasing, ostriches are still considered a species of least concern by conservation groups. However, several subspecies of the ostrich are either extinct or endangered. Ostriches used to be found in the Middle East (Arabian ostrich) but were all hunted out.

Ostriches live across much of the African continent, including the countries of Sudan, Morocco, Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Their natural predators include cheetahs, lions, and humans, who continue to hunt them for their meat and feathers. Like many wild species, ostriches are also threatened by habitat loss from human population expansion.

It is unknown how many wild ostriches exist, but ostrich farms are found in over 50 countries, helping to keep the total number of these birds high.

ostrich standing
Image Credit: Piqsels

Emus: Ostriches’ Australian Cousins

If you do spot a large, speedy, flightless bird in Australia, chances are you aren’t looking at an ostrich, but one of their close relatives instead: the emu.

Emus are the second largest bird in the world, just behind the ostrich. Unlike the ostrich, emus are native to Australia and are found throughout the continent. These birds live in a variety of habitats, including forests, deserts, and even near human cities. They are tall birds with short wings and long necks.

Emus belong to the same family of large, flightless birds as do ostriches. Like ostriches, they are farmed for meat and feathers. While ostriches are rare in Australia, emus are a species of least concern, although they are losing habitat due to human agriculture. Emus may also be killed by farmers who consider them pests.

How To Tell The Difference Between Emus And Ostriches

If you’re in Australia, you are much more likely to see an emu than an ostrich. Besides physical location, here are a few other differences between emus and ostriches.

Ostriches are larger than emus, capable of reaching 9 feet in height and weighing over 300 pounds. Emus are usually 5-6 feet tall and just over 130 pounds at their heaviest.

The two birds differ in appearance as well. Male ostriches have black and white feathers, while the females are grayish-brown. Both male and female emus occur in various shades of brown.

Ostriches have large wings even though they can’t fly. Emus have much smaller, barely visible wings. Emus also have feathers up their necks, unlike ostriches, who have bare necks. Ostriches have only two toes on each foot, while emus have three.

The differences between these two birds are evident even in their eggs. Ostrich eggs are huge, weighing up to 3 pounds, and cream-colored. Emu eggs are green and only about one-third of that size, usually weighing about a pound. Interestingly, males of both species are responsible for sitting on the eggs.

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Conclusion

While there are some wild ostriches in Australia, the only stable breeding populations exist in their native Africa. Ostrich farming continues on the continent, although it is not as widespread as in previous decades. Australia is the native home of a close cousin of the ostrich, however, and sightings of the emu are much more frequent. The wild ostriches of Australia will likely die out over the coming years but fortunately, the species’ population remains strong both on its native continent and on farms worldwide.


Featured Image Credit: Piqsels