Imagine a romantic honeymoon stride on the African savanna. Safari gear on, camera at the ready to snap some zebras, elephants and perhaps a distant pride of lions, when suddenly, you’re face to face with an ostrich.
You’d probably smile and reach to take a picture, until the gigantic bird starts bouncing towards you at great speed.
At that moment, you may want to know how to survive an unexpected confrontation with this heavyweight champion of all birds.
How to survive an ostrich attack?
Even though they can’t fly, and they really (yes really) do not stick their head in the sand, ostriches are a force to be reckoned with. Reaching speeds up to 43 miles an hour (70 km), these hot-tempered giants can easily outrun you. And not only that.
They wouldn’t hesitate to use their long and powerful legs with 4-inch-long dagger-like claws to kick at you with a force strong enough to disembowel a lion.
When I was just a kid, I had a scary encounter with an ostrich at a mini zoo in France. My mom, dad, sister, and I came to see all kinds of farm animals there, including ostriches, which are held for their huge eggs and lean meat.
Not expecting any trouble, we entered the enclosed ostrich area and slowly approached. But as soon as we got nearer, one of them looked at us crankily for disturbing him during his holy rite of worm-picking.
First, he stared us down with its angry, tennis ball-sized eyes and then started coming towards us with spread-out wings. Within seconds, the ostrich was so close to us that only due to my parents’ alertness we made it back to the safe side of the fence before he had the chance to trample us.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by these formidable birds, especially after I learned these are the closest living relatives of the T.rex. Apparently, all dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago, except for this one lineage that gave rise to birds.
This, according to scientists, makes ostriches, as well as their less impressive cousin the chicken, a highly modified dinosaur.
Though not as big as their ancient ancestors like the T.rex or the enormous elephant bird that roamed around on Madagascar until 1000 years ago, ostriches still grow up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall, weigh up to 320 pounds (145 kg) and can cover 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 m) in a single stride.
Where do ostriches live?
After the Arabian ostrich went extinct mid 20th century, only two members of the struthionidae family of flightless birds remain: the common ostrich and its darker-skinned cousin: the Somali ostrich, both of which live in Africa.
From Morocco to Mozambique and from South Africa to Sudan can find these mighty birds roaming the open plains and woodlands.
Yet, the biggest chance for an encounter is on the southern African savanna, where it shares its habitat with animals such as wildebeest and zebra, as well as predators like lions, cheetahs and even hyenas.
These open plains are not the only places where you encounter ostriches though. Due to an increased demand for their eggs and meat, the number of ostriches in captivity exceeds the wild population by far.
So, be aware when walking on a farm that keeps ostriches, as you will learn later in this story.
Obviously, zoos have their share of ostriches, but except for this mini zoo in France, most of these places would have fences to protect humans from potentially aggressive animals. Although, in some zoos it seems ostriches have more to fear from visiting humans than the other way around.
How do ostriches attack?
One thing to remember is that ostriches generally don’t attack. They usually keep their distance and prefer to avoid confrontation. Yet, they are hot-tempered, and may feel the need to defend their territory.
A few signs of the ostrich choosing to fight rather than flee a perceived threat are when it vigorously flaps its wings, inflates its neck or utters some loud booming sounds.
When actually attacking, the bird will storm forward with its wings flapping or spread out widely, tail raised up and neck stretched out.
How dangerous is an ostrich attack?
The most common injuries from ostrich-attacks are either deep slashes in the lower abdominal area, caused by the angry birds’ powerful forward kick, or bruises from being knocked over when the ostrich rams you at full speed with its bony breastplate.
Once you’re on the ground he won’t try to eat you, he prefers lizards and roots, but could try to jump on you with his full 320 pounds, which may cause additional bruises or even fractures. Even though ostriches don’t have teeth, their bite can still be very painful.
A notable ostrich encounter happened to singer Johnny Cash, who, at his game farm, got seriously beaten up by one of own ostriches. He ended up in hospital with a few broken ribs and a huge gash in his stomach. In his biography, the singer writes:
"I was walking through the woods in the compound when suddenly he jumped out onto the trail in front of me and crouched there with his wings spread out, hissing nastily. . . When I came back I was carrying a good stout six-foot stick, and I was prepared to use it. And sure enough, there he was on the trail in front of me, doing his thing. When he started moving toward me I went on the offensive, taking a good hard swipe at him."
“I missed. He wasn’t there. He was in the air, and a split second later he was on his way down again, with that big toe of his, larger than my size-thirteen shoe, extended toward my stomach. He made contact—I’m sure there was never any question he wouldn’t—and frankly, I got off lightly. All he did was break my two lower ribs and rip my stomach open down to my belt, If the belt hadn’t been good and strong, with a solid belt buckle, he’d have spilled my guts exactly the way he meant to. As it was, he knocked me over onto my back and I broke three more ribs on a rock.”
Whether to take Cash’ tough-guy anecdote with a pinch of salt or not, the fact is that ostriches in captivity, that are used to human presence, may still behave aggressively, and could potentially inflict lethal damage.
How to avoid an ostrich encounter?
The best for both you and the ostrich is for you to keep distance.
If your camera has a great lens, you’re lucky. Otherwise, just enjoy the moment from a distance and realize you wouldn’t want to risk your life and disturb this mighty wild animal for the sake of some thrills or an ostrich-selfie. Follow the guidelines below to avoid close contact.
1. Keep your distance
If you don’t bother the ostrich, it’s unlikely to bother you.
That’s why you should always consider any distance less than 350 feet (around 100 meters) from an ostrich as potentially disturbing or unsafe.
2. Know your surroundings
Am I in an area where ostriches roam freely?
And if yes, do I have a clear enough overview of my surroundings to make sure I can keep a safe distance from ostriches or other wild animals?
3. Is it mating season?
Be very alert during if you visit ostrich-territory between March and September.
Females can be aggressive when nesting, and males can become violent during the mating season.
How to escape an attacking ostrich?
If you managed to anger an ostrich, and he’s storming towards you, here’s what to do:
If you manage to hide somewhere even before the ostrich starts storming your way, you could make it believe you’re gone.
Places to hide could be in thick bushes, or behind man-made objects or rocks. However, know that ostriches have an excellent sense of smell and sight, so don’t expect hiding behind a tree will save you.
2. Run for cover
Even if you were Usain Bolt, you would never beat the speed of an ostrich.
However, if a safer place is within reach, you can still make a run for it, especially if you run between some trees and thick bushes. But beware, if you decide to run and the ostrich catches up, it’ll kick you in the back with its sharp claws.
3. Climb something
Another option is to find higher ground.
Since ostriches can’t fly, a tree, the top of a truck or building, or just a big rock will keep you safe. Once there, stay put and wait for the ostrich to give up the attack.
4. Jump into a thorny bush
You’re not the only one who hates the idea of getting physical with a thorny bush.
This could therefore be your best chance to survive an attack. As hard a choice as it may seem, the ostrich will most certainly not follow you into this place of pain.
5. Get down
When all else fails, your best option is to lie down on your stomach, protect your head and pray. Because of the way the ostrich’ legs are built, they cannot really kick downward, so you’d be relatively safe.
The only issue is that it may come and stand on you. The average weight of a male ostrich is about 250 pounds (113 kilo), so if he tries trampling your head, you have a problem.
How to defend yourself from an ostrich attack?
Running and hiding may be of no use on the savanna, and you could find yourself in a situation where all you can do is defend yourself and fight for your life.
Since the odds are against you, you have to take the martial art approach, which tells us to use the opponent’s weakness to our advantage.
1. Grab a stick
First things first. If the ostrich is attacking, make sure to keep him at a distance with a long stick, or anything similar you can find.
2. Stay away from its legs
If the ostrich manages to kick you, your fight is lost.
That’s why you need to use your stick and your wits to make sure he can’t deliver these lethal blows. Try to stay behind or on the side of the bird, as it can only kick forward.
3. Put your hand up!
Another trick that’s being shared by ostrich farmers, is to hold your hand up high in front of the angry ostrich.
It apparently gives him the idea that there’s something quite tall in front of him, and he may back off. Still, I would prefer not to risk standing in front of a mad ostrich like that.
4. Find its weak spots
If all else fails, and you have no other choice, use your stick or long object to hit the bird in its weak spots.
Best places to aim for are its neck and legs. Keep hitting to persuade the ostrich to halt its attack or to destabilize him for you to find a window to escape.
5. Wrestle him!
Another way that’s being used to subdue ostriches in captivity is to approach from the side, grab it by its neck, catch its beak and put a dark cloth around its head.
Whether this type of ostrich-wrestling would work with an angry one in the wild is doubtful, but as a last resort it could work. As long as you stay away from those legs, you may stand a chance!
Ostriches are peaceful animals that generally don’t look for trouble. However, when they feel threatened, they can react aggressively and cause serious injuries or even death.
For most people traveling to areas where the ostrich can be seen in the wild, it’s logical to be more alert than in their own backyard, so it only makes sense to keep distance and try to not disturb local wildlife.
So, if using common sense, chances of being attacked by an ostrich are very slim, even on the African savanna. But an increase in safaris, human encroachment into ostrich habitat, as well as a growing number of ostrich farms around the world, makes encounters more likely.
When venturing out into ostrich territory, always keep an eye on your surroundings and know where to run or hide in case of a sudden encounter with this fiery descendant of the T.rex.