(: the best of :) THURSDAY: The Ostrich – the Biggest and the Fastest

20 March 2014

Australia has its emu, and America has its rhea. You only have to look at an emu or rhea to recognize these large birds as the cousins of the familiar ostrich.  And Africa’s ostrich is the biggest and the fastest.

[Ostrich image]

The common ostrich is the biggest bird on earth growing as tall as 9 feet and weighing up to 240 pounds.  Faster than either of its cousins, ostriches have been clocked at 43 mph.  At that speed, the ostrich isn’t just the fastest bird on earth; it’s the fastest of any land animal on the planet.  Perhaps, speed compensates for flight.  Like the other members of its intercontinental family, the ostrich is a flightless bird.

[Ostrich video]

The ostrich has flashier feathers than either of its cousins.  Adult male ostriches are black with a white wing tips and white tail feathers.  Females and young males have grayish-brown feathers – similar to those of their American cousin, the rhea.  The head and neck of the ostrich . . . well, . . . it looks like the bird is going bald — with only a sparse cover of “down.”   But, instead of a comb-over, the ostrich’s thin hair stands straight up.  It looks like it had a crew cut and, then, let it grow out.

Nature has given the ostrich all it needs to keep an eye on things.   The bird’s head rises 9-feet into the air.  Its eyes are 2 inches wide — the largest eyes of any land vertebrate (land animal with a back-bone).

Ostriches spend most of their time roaming in pairs.   Sometimes, during dry spells, these large birds form flocks.  Ostriches eat plants, but will also chow-down on some insects.  You’d expect the ostrich to be a daytime-animal like most birds.   But, if you’re wandering around in the wilds of Africa, on a moonlit night, you might meet an ostrich.  The moon gives enough light to make the ostrich comfortable enough for a nocturnal prowl.

When threatened, the ostrich will lie flat on the ground to fool passers-by into thinking it is nothing more than a bump on the ground.  But there’s one old story about the ostrich that isn’t true: this bird never hides its head in the sand.  When threatened, ostriches seem to prefer to just hide – as a first line of defense.  But, when push comes to shove, these birds are more than able to defend themselves.  Ostriches use their powerful legs to kick.  And they have quite a kick.  It can be fatal.

Speaking of legs, no discussion of the ostrich would be complete without a discussion of this bird’s toes.  Yes, toes.  The ostrich’s relatives, the emu and the rhea, are both unusual birds because they have only three toes.  Most birds have four toes – three forward and one “opposing” toe.  The opposing toe is used to help the bird hang on to branches and other perches in the wild.    Of course, if you’re a bird, and you don’t fly, you don’t perch.  Flightless birds like the emu and rhea use their feet to walk and run.  To a running bird, a fourth toe would be nothing but an irritation.

It seems only logical that the ostrich should also have three toes, but it’s hard to count the number of ways in which this particular family of birds is unusual.  And, if you count the toes, you’ll find that the ostrich has only two.  Also, you’d think if you had toes, they’d be a bit alike.   Again, this family is unusual.  One toe has an enormous nail that resembles a hoof.   The other toe has no nail at all.  The best guess is that this “reduced number of toes” helps the ostrich run even faster.

[Ostrich feet]

But before we leave the subject of the ostrich’s legs, we need to say a few words about predators.  Africa is no place for any animal that can’t defend itself.  Aside from the famous “king of the jungle,” the lion, the rest of the list includes cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas as just a few of the most ferocious predators from which the ostrich has to defend itself.  Surprisingly, this bird does an amazingly good job of defending itself and can more than hold its own in the jungle.  How, does it manage?  With its legs.  The ostrich uses its legs to defend itself in two very different ways.

First, “he who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.”  The ostrich often runs away from predators.  As the fastest land animal on earth, it’s got a built-in advantage in this department.   Unfortunately, young ostriches, which haven’t grown up to their full speed, are particularly vulnerable to predators that the adult birds can easily outrun.  Sometimes, predators succeed by ambushing the ostrich – hiding and pouncing on an unsuspecting bird.  The cheetah is not as fast as an ostrich but, sometimes, is fast enough to catch an ostrich before the bird can build-up to full speed.

Second, the ostrich can use its legs to fight.  When an ostrich can’t retreat, especially when defending its nest, it will use its legs against an attacker.  With all of its running, you might get the impression that the ostrich isn’t an effective fighter.  It almost seems inaccurate to say the ostrich uses its legs to defend itself, because its legs are so often fatal to its adversary.  Maybe it’s enough to say that ostriches can, and do, kill lions with their legs.

In the wild, ostriches avoid humans as potential predators.  Maybe it’s a good thing for humans that the ostrich prefers to run away.  Ostriches in the wild, and sometime in captivity, can attack humans if these birds feel threatened.  Human deaths occur each year from massive injuries from a single kick of a leg and a single swipe of a claw.  These birds are big and tough.

Of the members of this family, the ostrich, emu, and rhea, the mating behavior of the ostrich is “about in the middle” in terms of strangeness.  Like the rhea, during mating season, a single ostrich male will mate with as few as 2 or as many as 7 females.  Although the male mates with several females, it will form a couple – a bond – with only one of the females in the group.

The strangeness of ostrich mating involves its rituals.  The male will repeat a loud, booming call while doing a kind of dance in which it flaps one wing a few times and, then, the other a few times.  The female will run in a circle around the male, while the male winds his head in a spiral motion. Disturbingly, ostriches raised entirely by humans will direct these same rituals toward their human keepers.

Females lay their eggs in a shared nest.  Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any bird at about 6 inches in length and 3 pounds in weight.  The males sit on the eggs at night and, then, the females sit on the eggs during the day.   The eggs hatch in about 40 days.  The male principally defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, but both the male and female raise their young together.

[Ostrich family on a walk]

The young ostriches will not reach full maturity in less than 2 years and, if they survive predators until they reach adulthood, a large number can expect to live for many more years.  Ostriches have been known to live past 60 years of age.

Ostriches have always been a focus of human fascination.  Use of their feathers for ornamentation extends back almost to the beginning of recorded history.  However, only in the 19th century did commercial ostrich farming for feathers develop.   These giant birds where tamed by capturing baby ostriches and raising them in captivity.  Ostriches, by the way, aren’t plucked, but sort of sheared.  A new crop of feathers re-grows about every 8 months.  The ostrich industry was only about feathers until the 1970’s when ostrich skin/leather and ostrich meat became profitable products.

Also, ostrich racing is catching on.  In Africa, people race ostriches while riding on the birds’ backs.  The “riding-birds” are specially fitted with saddles, reins, and bits for the purpose.  In the United States, ostrich racing began in Jacksonville, Florida, with the ostriches pulling draw-carts with human occupants.  Now, races are not only held in Florida, but also in Arizona, Nevada, and Minnesota.


























THURSDAY: “Clear Gold” — Aquifers, Promise, and Hope

10 October 2013

Groundwater made the news in September.  Rather, groundwater made the news under its more technical (and more fashionable) name, “aquifer.”  The month’s news included the discovery of huge aquifers in Kenya, and the release of a report with a conservation plan for a North American aquifer.

Of course, groundwater isn’t just useful.  It’s essential to irrigation.  And irrigation, in turn, is essential to agricultural production.  Still, discovering an aquifer isn’t the same as discovering oil or gold — or is it?  In North America, “fields” covered with wells continuously pump, not oil out of underground “domes,” but water out of “aquifers.”  This water is used to irrigate other “fields” — the great agricultural fields of Middle America.  If you take a long look at how groundwater is “extracted” from the earth, you have to wonder if plain old “water” needs a media face-lift.  Oil was once called “black gold.”  So, some have suggested that water should be called, “clear gold.”

In September of 2013, five enormous aquifers were discovered in Kenya’s Turkana County.  The discovery was reported by a firm specializing in natural resource exploration, Radar Technologies International, working in the African nation under the sponsorship of UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

All of the aquifers were discovered through advanced satellite technology.  Two of the five have been confirmed by drilling with the other three scheduled for drilling confirmation.  The exact size of the find is unknown.  Of the five, the two confirmed aquifers, the Lodwar and Lotikipi Basin Aquifers, are believed to be enormous.  The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, alone, is estimated to be the size of the state of Rhode Island.  In terms of volume, these aquifers should contain about 66 trillion gallons of water.  That’s equivalent to Kenya’s normal rainfall for the next 73 years.

Why the celebration?  Turkana County has been long plagued by drought.  In fact, according to UNESCO, of Kenya’s 41 million people, 17 million lack access to enough safe drinking water, while 28 million are without adequate sanitation.  In the past, even violence has erupted among competing agricultural users over the nation’s previously scarce water supply.  In Kenya, the discovery of so much fresh water changes everything. With this single, amazing discovery, the course of Kenya’s future has suddenly taken a promising turn.  If the nation were a person, finding these aquifers would be like winning a multimillion-dollar lottery jackpot.

Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s Secretary for the Environment, Water and Natural Resources, explained that the discovery “opens a door to a more prosperous future” for the African nation.  Clean, safe drinking water will promote greater health.  Sufficient water for raising livestock and irrigation of crops will lead to relief from malnutrition.  So, there is something almost miraculous about the discovery.  A population with the greatest need suddenly discovers an unsuspected abundance right under their feet.

Secretary Judi Wakhungu also added that, “We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations.”  A wise direction to take considering the increasing awareness that, no matter how big or how deep, no reservoir is bottomless.

On a continent far from Kenya, many wells, covering many fields, continuously pump groundwater up out of a massive aquifer.  The Great Plains Aquifer of North America covers a vast area including portions of eight states in the Midwestern United States.  The aquifer bears the formal name, “Ogallala,” (perhaps in honor of the Native American tribe, the Ogallala Sioux).  This vast aquifer provides 30% of all water for irrigation in the United States in addition to providing water for residential uses.  That’s a lot of water.

            Researchers from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, conducted a four-year study of the Ogallala aquifer published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  No one was surprised that more water is coming out than is going in.  In 1960, the aquifer’s water reserves had declined only 3% as a result of systematic use.  However, by 2010, the reserves had declined by 30 %.  And, with projected usage, a 69% decline would be expected by 2060.

The study’s lead researcher, David Steward, a professor of civil engineering at Kansas State University, explained that the great aquifer’s water reserves are declining, but no one can be certain how long the water will last.  If the aquifer is to remain a continuing source of water, pumping rates must be reduced.  The goal of the conservation plan is simple.  Use the least water possible.  And, use that water as efficiently as possible.

The researchers developed statistical models to project and describe possible patterns of water depletion over the next century.  As Stewart explained, “The main idea is that if we’re able to save water today, it will result in a substantial increase in the number of years that we will have irrigated agriculture in Kansas.”

Steward and his colleagues anticipate future technologies will help farmers irrigate their land more efficiently.  There is reason for optimism.  Through the use of “increased irrigation technology, crop genetics and management strategies,” Steward explained, “water use efficiencies have increased by about 2 percent a year in Kansas, which means that every year we’re growing about 2 percent more crop for each unit of water.”  Looking at their 100 year model, they believe that, with consistent improvements in water use strategies, it may be possible to continue to use the aquifer’s water and increase net agricultural production through the next century and, perhaps, beyond.

However, for both Kansas and Kenya, the future depends on what is done in the present.  As Secretary Wakhungu explained, Kenya’s challenge goes beyond the efficient use and management of the newly discovered reserves.  Vigilance is required to protect those reserves from unscrupulous and potentially destructive economic exploitation, which could rob the nation’s citizens of the full benefits of this amazingly abundant groundwater.

In Kansas, conservation efforts are needed to protect their aquifer from depletion. Serious mismanagement could do damage that would require a long time to fix.  According to Dave Steward, if tapped dry, a completely emptied Ogallala Aquifer would take 500 to 1,300 years to refill.  But the aquifer is far from empty and, with continued action to assure efficient use and management, the Ogallala may continue as a source of water for irrigation and residential use for the next 100 years and beyond.

Author’s Note: The University of Kansas report predicted that, without conservation efforts, 69% of the water in the Ogallala Aquifer would be used by 2060.  With conservation efforts, irrigation with the aquifer’s water could still be going strong, in 2110, along with increased agricultural production.  The report does not predict that the Ogallala Aquifer will run dry in by 2060 or 2110, although a remarkable number of articles seem to say that it does.