Ostriches have been a part of San Diego Zoo Global since the 1920s. In the Zoo’s early days, infertile ostrich eggs were often served at the lunch room in the Zoo or taken home by Zoo employees for domestic use. A note about ostrich eggs in our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, from 1935 said, “They are very tender, making delicious angel food cakes. They are also good when hard boiled, and it takes more than an hour to cook them properly for this sort of service.”
Today, a small group of female ostriches live at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in the African Plains exhibit; they can be seen by guests taking our Africa Tram Safari. The females often lay eggs, but, as there are no male ostriches at the Park, the eggs are infertile. Another way to see them even closer is to take a Caravan Safari. Participants never forget the moment when, standing in the back of a flatbed truck, they find themselves at eye level with an inquisitive ostrich!
Humans have had a long association with ostriches due primarily to the birds’ feathers. Records show the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires all actively groomed, farmed, and traded ostrich plumes. Throughout the ages, ostrich feathers have been worn by royalty, adorned the helmets of medieval knights, and festooned the elaborate hairdos of ladies. In the late 18th century, the hat industry brought the fashion for all types of feathers to its zenith and turned the hunting of wild birds for their feathers into a major global enterprise.
Ostrich plumes were particularly prized. South Africa turned to the commercial farming of ostriches for their feathers. It quickly became a profitable industry; so valuable were ostrich plumes that in the early 20th century, they ranked fourth on the list of South African exports after gold, diamonds, and wool. By 1913, more than 1 million ostriches lived on commercial farms throughout the world. Then, overnight, the bottom dropped out of the feather market due, surprisingly, to the invention of the car. Early cars had no roof or windshield, and women passengers found their feathers striped from hats and blown away.
Ostrich farming continues today on a smaller scale primarily to supply the feather duster industry. Farm-raised ostriches are also harvested for eggs, supple leather, and as gourmet meat that is lower in cholesterol than beef.
At one time, most of Africa was home to the ostrich. Today, although not threatened, the ostrich requires strict protection and farming to conserve the remaining wild populations. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has been working with the endangered red-necked ostrich in Niger and providing technical expertise and funding to develop and manage a breeding program for the birds to establish secure and self-sustaining populations in that country.
We still have much to learn about this interesting bird’s complex social life.