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Friday, January 18, 2008

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How to Survive an Encounter With an Ostrich

Anyone who's seen Hitchcock's classic film The Birds may feel a little uneasy around pointy beaks and razor-sharp talons. An ostrich attack, however, is straight out of Jurassic Park. Like that movie's velociraptors, ostriches are fast--they can run at up to 45 mph--and they have a sharp nail on each of their feet that is capable of slicing a person open with one kick. Unlike velociraptors, however, an ostrich can reach more than nine feet tall and 350 pounds. The best defense? Stay at least 50-100 yards away from ostriches. If, however, you end up face to face with one of these birds, follow these tips.


1. Get to safety. When hiking or working near ostriches, you should always be aware of your surroundings and the nearest place you can run to safety. Remember, you won't be able to outrun an ostrich over any distance, but if you've got a good head start you should be able to get someplace safe if it's close enough. Head for a building, a car, or a high fence or tree that you can scale (ostriches can't fly). In the wild, go into a thorn bush if you have to; you'll get scratched up pretty good, but an ostrich won't pursue you into thorns.

2. Put something between you and the ostrich. If you can't make it to safety, grab a long pole and hold it in front of you. Since you don't want to have to find something like this while you're being attacked, it's best to carry an implement with you when there's a chance of an ostrich encounter. A strong branch with a forked end or a rake are good options, as you can hold the crook or the broader end against the ostrich's neck or chest. A broom or catching hook might be available when working with captive ostriches. A branch from a thorn tree, such as an acacia, is particularly effective in warding off an ostrich. Keep in mind, however, that whatever pole, tool, or branch you choose must be strong and long enough to keep the bird's legs from reaching you.

--- Holding the ostrich at bay works well in situations in which the ostrich is in captivity and handlers (it's best to have at least four when trying to handle a large ostrich) can come at the ostrich from the side or, preferably, the rear and subdue it by placing a hood over its neck and/or bending its neck down to the ground so that it cannot kick.
--- If your life is in danger and you have a stout stick, a hard blow to the ostrich's neck will usually break its neck and kill the animal. A machete blow to the neck will also kill the bird. Naturally, killing the animal should be a last resort only.

3. Play dead. In a 1918 article in The Atlantic magazine, former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "If, when assailed by the ostrich, the man stands erect, he is in great danger. But by the simple expedient of lying down, he escapes all danger." The experience of ostrich farmers, naturalists, and adventurers has largely confirmed Roosevelt's observation. Since ostriches kick forward and downward, the chance of injury is much lower if you lie face down on the ground and cover your head and neck with your arms. Your back will still be exposed, but this is much safer than if your front were open to attack. Additionally, the ostrich is not able to kick very effectively at an object on the ground, and eventually it will lose interest if you play dead. The bird will still likely stand on you--it's been described as dancing by some who've gone through the experience--and it may even sit on you for a while, but it will most likely not rip you open if you do this equivalent of burying your head in the sand.

A male and female ostrich on a farm. The powerful legs and sharp nails can deliver a fatal blow.


Ostriches love man-made objects, especially shiny ones, so before you go out on safari or onto an ostrich farm remove all jewelry, and avoid displaying shiny or dangling objects when near ostriches. Even the most mild mannered of ostriches practice investigative pecking, and a peck at an earring or your eyeglasses - or your eyes, for instance, could result in serious injury.
Ostriches can only kick forward, and rarely, to the side, so if you're behind or to the side of an ostrich you're pretty safe. Ostriches can maneuver quite deftly, however, so you're only safe temporarily.

Ostriches are usually very skittish and will run if given the chance. If you don't try to corner an ostrich, then, you'll usually have no problems. Males ready for breeding, however, tend to be very territorial and may become aggressive. You can spot these by the red flush on the front of their legs. Hopefully, however, you won't get close enough to see this without binoculars.

Ostriches don't really bury their heads in the sand, as is often thought. They sometimes put their heads to the ground if they sense danger in the distance, as when they do so their bodies can look like mounds of earth. They do this so well, in fact, that it's sometimes possible for you to come very close to an ostrich before you see it.

In the wild, it's pretty easy to stay out of an ostrich's way if you keep your distance. On ostrich farms, however, injuries and deaths are more common--in fact the late country singer Johnny Cash received serious injuries from an ostrich attack on his farm. Never try to handle an ostrich without proper training and backup.

Professional handlers and ostrich farmers sometimes hold a board of thick plywood with arm holes in front of them to protect themselves from the ostrich's nails. The ostrich's kick, however, which can exert more than 500 pounds of pressure per square inch, can still cause serious injury even if the nail doesn't penetrate the board.

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