THE OSTRICH

You remember the ostrich: an awkward, funny, unflying bird that sticks his head in the sand and looks like he'd be fun to ride. Well, forget him.

Meet, instead, the angry, dangerous defender of his personal domain. Imposingly tall, fierce, wielding a claw the size of a meat hook and just as deadly, the male ostrich (Struthio camelus)m in mating season is not someone to be triled with.

And if you don't believe me, just ask one. I did.

The occasion was bumpy ride a window-encircled van over some rough terrain in the Texas hill country. My guide was a local rancher who keeps some exotic animals on his place, including a couple of ostrich families, each with its own 100-acre enclave.

At first, I didn't understand when the rancher cautioned a passenger to get back in quickly after he had jumped out to open a wide aluminum gate. All I could see was a couple of ostriches pecking each other's backs. But as soon as we made out way into the compound, I began to see the light.

Immediately, one of the ostriches, the male, began loping toward us with that peculiar gait in which all the motion is from the thighs down, making the body of the bird look like a great windjammer being borne along by an invisible breeze. Within seconds he was upon us, circling the van, ducking his long sinuous neck, and inspecting us with an eye the size of a glass baseball. (The ostrich has the largest eye of any land animal in the world.)

By now, we must have been going a good 20 miles an hour over the rock-strewn, rugged land. The ostrich, determined and fearless, kept up with us, striding alongside the van, his otherwise useless wings outstretched for balance. We might lose him from time to time; but every time we slowed down for a moment or two, he was right with us, circling, watching, occasionally banging against the side of the car.

Then when we stopped, he suddenly stooped down, spread his wings in a threatening shield, and began snaking his neck back and forth while fanning hiw wings. This behavior, I am told, is called "a display." Its meaning was very clear: "Why don't you come out and fight like a man?"

I preferred to stay in the van. Had I decided to get out and take up the challenge, my best line of defense would have been to lie down. Running would be out of the question (ostriches can reach 50 miles per hour and can cover over 25 feet with each stride in a full run). And standing to fight would be even more foolhardy.

The ostrich has powerful leg muscles, which look like the kind of drumsticks you would expect from a turkey with the Hulk-syndrome, and, according to an article in the International Wildlife magazine, it can use them to raise that pointed toe claw and bring it down in a deadly slashing motion, unless his adversary is on the ground, where the ostrich's high kick is rendered much less powerful.

Since I didn't have the article handy at the time to fill me in on these dangers, I fell back on my own common sense, and the experience of my guide. He told me he had been driving through this compound earlier that week when he noticed an inexperienced ranch hand and an ostrich glaring at each other from either side of a tree.

Every time the ostrich would move to circle the tree in one direction, the young ranch hand would circle the other way. My guide approached in the jeep and asked the newcomer if he needed any help. When the otherwise-occupied cowboy answered in the negative, the guide sat and watched the standoff for a few more minutes and asked again if he couldn't be of some assistance.

"You can get me out of here!" exclaimed the trapped rancher.

This young hand need not have felt ashamed at being outclassed in a match with an ostrich.

The world's largest bird averages 150 pounds, but can reach twice that weight , and stands as high as eight feet. It does have a habit of sinking to the ground and laying out its neck at full length but -- contrary to popular myth -- does not actually bury its head at impending danger. And anyway, most impending dangers step aside in the path of an ostrich, which has few natural enemies.

Aside from its prodigious weight class and records of fighting skill, the ostrich has piled up a number of other odd awards, some of which I later culled from a book called "1,001 Questions Answered About Birds," by Cruickshank and Cruickshank. This neat little book reports that the ostrich:

* Probably has the longest small intestine of any bird (46 feet).

* Is worth almost $1,000 a pair.

* Has tough, crocodile-like skin valuable for boots, belts, and wallets but is generally raised for its feathers.

* Uses its own feathers somewhat more functionally itself. (Sometimes an ostrich will lift its wings like sails when running with the wind to increase its speed.)

* Has only two toes instead of a bird's usual five.

* Is considered by ornithologists to inhabit the lowest rung of the evolutionary ladder among birds.

But it is for its bizarre egg-laying habits that the ostrich etches out its most unusual niche in the arcane lore of feathery creatures.

The polygamous male ostriches guard hens that lay 40 or 50 eggs on a pile in a single nest, far more than they can even sit on. And, while six of their offspring would fit in the single egg of Aepyornis maximusm (The prehistoric giant roc or elephant bird, which weighed 1,000 pounds, resembled an ostrich, and laid eggs that would hold two gallons of liquid), the ostrich has no peer among living birds in girth of eggs. Their eggs are so large it takes more than 40 minutes to hard-boil them -- and eating one is like eating 2 dozen chicken eggs.

The ostrich actually lays an egg that is smallest among birds in relation to its size. If chickens were to follow suit, their eggs would be one-twentieth of what they are now. In comparison, a one-pound female ruddy duck somehow manages to lay up to three pounds of eggs in a brood.

None of these things occurred to me at the moment I was told I had been elected to open and close the aluminum gate as we left the ostrich compound. I found myself concentrating rather steadily on the distant figure of a camel-like bird -- indigenous to Africa, but fiercely ensconced here in Texas -- which had suddenly realized that this blue van had stopped and a lone human was messing about in its private domain.

Kicking up a cloud of dust, the bird was, all of a sudden covering the ground in a stride that showed flightlessness to be something of a virtue. And, at that moment, it occurred to me for the first time that there was something strikingly humorless about the gait of an ostrich, something downright unfunny, not worth laughing at, and unwise to mock.

I hardly cracked a smile.

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