The ostrich is undoubtedly the world's largest living bird. Adult males stand 2.4 m tall and can weigh well over 100 kg; the hen is slightly smaller. Ostriches are flightless birds, with their great body size and reduced wing size rendering them incapable of flying. They have a long neck, long bare legs and two toes. Their strong legs allow them to run up to 70 km per hour when necessary, with strides of up to 8m. Neck and thigh muscles are well developed.
The first commercial ostrich farm was established in South Africa in about 1860 solely for harvesting the feathers every six to eight months. Ostrich farms began to spread gradually to other countries, particularly Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Argentina, until the total number of ostriches raised commercially reached over 1 million by 1913. With the First and Second World Wars, however, the ostrich feather market crashed and the number of ostrich farms dropped significantly. The industry, nonetheless, managed to survive on a much smaller scale in South Africa. By keeping ostriches not only for their feathers but also for their meat and hides, it grew steadily thereafter. In 1986, just before the economic sanctions were imposed, South Africa exported a record high of 90 000 ostrich hides to the United States alone (Vyver, 1992). The shortage of ostrich skins after 1986 caused prices to rise. This made ostrich farming an attractive proposition and a number of farms were established in Europe and more in the United States in an attempt to fill part of the ever-increasing international demand. The world ostrich industry had finally begun and continues to grow steadily.
The wild ostrich is sexually mature at four to five years of age, while the domesticated ostrich is mature at two to three years; the female matures slightly earlier than the male. Male ostriches attain the black-and-white plumage when mature. Females and immature birds have a much duller coloring, with grayish-brown plumage. Full distinction between sexes is reached at about two years of age.
Today, ostrich farms are considered to be among the most profitable agricultural projects. They are often referred to as "the farms of the future" because of the large variety of possible products and hence their high profit potential. Ostriches are raised commercially for their meat, hide and feathers.
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