The ostrich is the only living species belonging to the family Struthionidae and order Struthioniformes. It is the largest living bird on earth, but its size makes it flightless. However, like most other flightless birds, it is particularly well adapted to life on land, with its long and powerful legs, which, together with the elongated neck, account for a considerable part of the height of the bird.

Nowadays, there are only two living species of ostrich left, or even only one, according to some taxonomic references. Indeed, some sources consider the Somali ostrich to be a separate species from the African ostrich, while others categorize it as a mere subspecies of the African ostrich. But, according to the classification of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the African ostrich (Struthio camelus) is indeed the only species still alive.

In addition, there are also four subspecies distributed throughout the African continent: the North African ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus), the Somali ostrich (S. c. molybdophanes), the Massai ostrich (S. c. massaicus), and the South African ostrich (S. c. australis). They are distinguished by their size, color of the neck, head, and thighs, and by their eggs.

Let’s take a closer look at the five types of ostrich and ostrich subspecies.

divider-multiprint Main Species of Ostriches

According to the FAO, there is only one living species of ostrich: the African ostrich, also called the common ostrich.

African Ostrich (Struthio camelus)

two north african ostriches walking
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The African ostrich is found in the sandy desert or semi-desert regions with sparse vegetation, the savannahs, or the arid forests of the African continent.

Here are the main characteristics of the common ostrich, which are also shared by the four subspecies:

  • It is the largest and heaviest bird in the animal kingdom. The ostrich is easily recognizable by its plump body, slender neck, and long sturdy legs. Its adult weight varies between 220 and 350 pounds, depending on sex and subspecies. This impressive weight, coupled with atrophied wings, prevents it from flying gracefully in the blue skies of Africa. But the ostrich compensates for its inability to fly by running twice as fast as the fastest human in the world!
  • It is the only bird to have only two toes on each foot. The inner toe, more developed and equipped with a long claw, is a formidable weapon against its terrestrial predators and provides it with good support when running.
  • It has the biggest eyes of land animals. Indeed, another interesting characteristic of the ostrich is that it has the largest eyes of animals living on land despite its tiny head. Its eyes are also furnished with long black lashes that would make any woman green with envy!
  • Ostriches generally live in groups of five or six individuals (the majority of which are females). Still, it is not uncommon to see isolated individuals (often males) or large bands comprising around fifty individuals, especially in the savannah.
  • Sexual dimorphism is prominent in ostriches. Adult males have black and white plumage, and the bare parts (head, neck, and legs) are colored differently depending on each subspecies: pink, gray, or gray-blue. Females and juveniles have a plumage of a duller gray-brown, as is the case with the majority of female birds in the animal kingdom.
  • Ostrich feathers do not have barbules, which translates into puffy plumage and a fluffy appearance. This allows them to withstand the extreme temperatures of the African savannah.

The 5 Types of Ostrich Subspecies

Here are the four recognized ostrich subspecies:

1. North African Ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus)

North African Ostrich
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The North African ostrich, also known as the red-necked ostrich or Barbary ostrich, is the largest subspecies of ostrich, standing 9 feet tall and weighing some 350 pounds. No wonder this big bird can scare away such an incredible predator as the lion King himself!

Its long neck is pinkish-red, both for females and males. However, male plumage is black and white while females are dull gray.

Moreover, it used to be the most widespread subspecies of ostrich, but unfortunately, it only inhabits parts of North Africa now. Indeed, about a century ago, its population was distributed in 18 countries from Ethiopia to Sudan, passing through Senegal, northern Egypt, and southern Morocco. But today, this large bird is only found in half a dozen African countries. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it could be in critical danger of extinction.

Fortunately, the North African ostrich is part of a Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF) project to save this majestic bird from extinction and restore its populations to its former ranges in the Sahara and Sahel.

2. Masai Ostrich (S. c. massaicus)

Masai Ostrich
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The Masai ostrich, also known as the East African ostrich, is endemic to the eastern part of the African continent and is found mainly in the semi-arid and grassy plains of Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

The Masai ostrich has a pinkish red neck, just like the North African ostrich, which easily distinguishes them from the blue and black-necked subspecies (Somali and South African ostriches, respectively). Moreover, it is also among the largest birds in the world, second only to the North African subspecies. Adult males can reach 8 feet in height and weigh up to 300 pounds.

This giant bird is mainly hunted and raised for its eggs, meat, and feathers.

3. South African Ostrich (S. c. australis)

South African Ostrich
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The South African ostrich, also known as the black-necked ostrich, Cape ostrich, or southern ostrich, is an endemic subspecies of southern Africa. It inhabits the regions around the Zambezi and Cunene rivers and is bred for its meat, eggs, and feathers.

4. Somali Ostrich (S. c. molybdophanes)

Somali Ostrich
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The Somali ostrich is found only in East Africa, in the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

This subspecies of ostriches is easily distinguished from its counterparts, thanks to the color of its neck and thighs, which are a grayish blue that turns deep blue during the mating season. Also, the female is larger than the male, which is uncommon in the animal kingdom. The male’s plumage is white, while the females have a rather brownish tint.

Also, unlike the Masai ostrich, with which it shares substantially the same habitat, the Somali ostrich prefers to graze away from predators in areas with tall trees and denser vegetation.

divider-multiprint The Extinct Arabian Ostrich

We cannot conclude this list without mentioning another subspecies of ostriches that is now extinct, namely the Arabian ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus). This ostrich, slightly smaller than its North African counterpart, was found in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula until 1941.

Unfortunately, with the drying out of the area, poaching, and the widespread use of firearms in the region, these subspecies became extinct in the wild in the mid-20th century.

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