The African continent is home to many of the world’s most unique creatures, and the Masai ostrich is no exception. While slightly smaller than the North African ostrich, the Masai ostrich is a massive flightless bird that can run 43 miles per hour in short bursts. Feral ostrich populations have declined rapidly due to hunting, habitat loss, and predation, but the Masai and other subspecies of ostriches have been spared extinction by living on farms.

Here, we examine the characteristics of the Masai and how the incredible bird survives the harsh climates of Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia.

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Quick Facts About Masai Ostriches

Masai Ostrich
Image Credit: Dr. Arjay Kumar Singh, Shutterstock
Breed Name:Masai Ostrich
Place of Origin:East Africa
Uses:Meat, eggs, leather, clothing
(Male) Size:254 pounds
(Female) Size:220 pounds
Color:Black and white plumage, pink necks, and pink legs
Lifespan:25–40 years in the wild, up to 50 in captivity
Climate Tolerance:Arid savannah conditions
Care Level:Moderate
Production:10–20 eggs per year in the wild, 40–60 eggs when farmed
Other uses:For racing in Africa and the United States

Masai Ostrich Origins

Ornithologists once believed that the oldest ancestors of ostriches lived in Africa around 20 million years ago. However, a recent study has shown that the birds originated in Asia 40 million years ago and did not reach Africa until the Miocene period. The Masai is a subspecies of ostrich closely related to the South African ostrich (Struthio camelus australis). Although the extinct Arabian ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) had similar features, it’s not considered a close relative of the Masai.

Masai Ostrich Characteristics

Every creature needs water to survive, but finding water in the harsh climate of savannahs in East Africa is challenging for some animals. The Masai ostrich does not frequently drink water but receives moisture from its diet. It has three stomachs and relies on leaves, seeds, roots, flowers, berries, and insects for sustenance and hydration. It enjoys a primarily herbivorous diet but also eats small reptiles and insects.

When the mating season begins in spring, the male’s neck and legs become brighter red. Males have more colorful plumage than females, and they use their bushy feathers to impress potential mates. Males choose a primary mate called the major hen and pick two or more other mating partners called minor hens.

When the male’s hens lay eggs, they’re incubated in a communal nest, where the rooster and major hen take turns warming the eggs. If a predator approaches the nest, the male will lead the attacker away from the young while the female protects the eggs. If the offspring are juveniles, the mother escapes to another area with the children.

Masai ostriches have two-toed feet with sharp talons, and they use them to defend their territory. Lions are their only natural predators in Kenya, but they’re also attacked by jackals, leopards, hunting dogs, and humans in other African regions. While several lions can take down an ostrich, the bird can break a lion’s back with a single kick. When an ostrich decides to flee rather than fight, it often escapes without injuries due to its impressive running speed. The Masai can run 33 miles per hour, but it’s capable of a short burst of 43 miles per hour.

masai ostriches in field
Image Credit: Piqsels

Uses

East Africa has shelters and farms for Masai ostriches to protect them from hunting and poaching, but the wild birds are hunted for their meat, feathers, and skin. Meat and eggs from ostrich farms in Kenya are exported all around the world, and the bird’s skin is used to make leather goods. They’re sometimes aggressive toward humans and do not make the best pets, but ostriches are used in races to entertain large crowds. Ostrich racing is popular in South Africa, but it’s also performed in Chandler, Arizona, during its yearly ostrich festival.

Appearance & Varieties

The Masai and North African ostriches both have pink necks, but the common ostrich and other subspecies have gray ones. Masai males have black feathers with white tips, and the hens have duller, brownish feathers with white tips. Both sexes have a fine down on their heads, though they appear bald from a distance.

The males have so many brightly colored feathers even though they can’t fly because their plumage is adapted for mating instead of flying. The male will ruffle his feathers to appear larger and more impressive to mates and predators. That said, the color of the male’s feathers is easier for predators to see compared to that of the female’s feathers, and researchers believe that more cocks are killed than hens for that reason.

masai ostrich
Image Credit: worldclassphoto, Shutterstock

Population/Distribution/Habitat

Masai ostriches are not endangered but their habitat is rapidly declining. They were once spread out across the continent, but their home ranges have shrunk due to the expansion of human development. The birds currently reside in southern Kenya, eastern Tanzania, and southern Somalia. Worldwide, the feral ostrich population, including all subspecies, is only estimated to be around 150,000 birds. However, the Masai and Somali ostriches are protected in areas like the Maasai Ostrich Farm, which keeps 700 birds. The farm is a popular location for jockeys to train before entering ostrich races.

Are Masai Ostriches Good for Small-Scale Farming?

Ostriches are kept in captivity worldwide, but they’re not the easiest animals to handle on a small farm. They produce more eggs when kept in captivity, and they can live for several decades, but handling the birds is hazardous. Males become more aggressive during the spring mating season, and it only takes one kick from an ostrich leg to disembowel a human. Ostrich eggs are high in protein and considered delicacies, but you’re safer keeping chickens, turkeys, or waterfowl than the massive Masai ostriches.

masai ostrich walking
Image Credit: PREJU SURESH, Shutterstock

Featured Image: JamesFarleyPhotos, Shutterstock