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Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Flightless Giants

You can get an exciting new perspective in life from lying on your back underneath a pickup truck in the middle of a field.  In my case, unfortunately, the excitement was unwanted, and the perspective was mostly that, if I emerged from under the truck, I was going to likely be stomped to death.  Reinforcing this summation of events were the lean, scaly legs, terminating in claws, that stomped around the edge of the truck as I lay down in what I really hoped was mud.

I'm pretty sure there's a scene like this in Jurassic Park somewhere, I thought, waiting for the clawed-and-scaly feet to wander off... and take the rest of the body with them.

Forget about the crocodilians and the big lizards.  If the dinosaurs left any heir-apparent roaming the earth, they would be the ratites - the flightless giants of the bird world.  The ostrich, biggest of all living birds.  Its dwarf South American counterparts, the rheas.  The emu, a fluffy brown Aussie so numerous that the government once declared war on it... and lost.  The cassowaries, which could best be described as neon-colored death-ninjas, capable of scooping out your innards with a clawed kick.

And last, but not least, the outliers of the group, the kiwis - chicken-sized New Zealanders with so many un-birdlike traits that they've been described as the honorary mammal.

As it happened, it was a male ostrich who was keeping me pinned down that day.  Ostriches, rheas, and emus are all very common in captivity, both in zoos (where they are often incorporated into mixed-species exhibits) and commercial farms, where they are ranched for their meat, eggs, and leather.  Some zoos, perhaps having experiences like mine, get their exhibit birds from ranches too.  That way, they can just house females and avoid that whole super-aggressive-breeding-mode-thing.  Cassowaries are far more delicate and harder to breed, and very few zoos display rare, nocturnal kiwis.

Outside of breeding mode, the larger ratites (apart from the cassowary) are a tractable, good natured bunch.  They are very personable and endlessly curious.  Unfortunately, their main method of investigation is the mouth; ratites have a very open definition of food and will eat whatever they can swallow, from seeds to small turtles.  This leads to them swallowing things which they should most definitely not, sometimes with severe consequences (the old legends about ostriches being able to safely eat anything, including metal, are false).

This ties-in to another famed trait of the ratites - their lack of smarts.  "An ostrich has three brain cells," I once heard an exasperated curator declare.  "One for inhaling, one for exhaling, and one for everything else."  And yes, compared to parrots, corvids, and other "bird brains", ratites are somewhat intellectually limited.  However, a new and more skilled generation of trainers have shown that even an old ostrich can learn a new trick.  Oh, and in defense of ostrich intelligence, I should point out that they do not, in fact, bury their heads underground so you can't see them.

Of course, if there is one defining trait the ratites share, it's their flightlessness.  Cassowaries and kiwis evolved on islands with no mammalian predators (though even if they hadn't, it would be a brave or foolhardy predator who would attack a cassowary).  The other three depend on their size to put them out of the range of most predators, their speed to outrun those that remain.  Ostriches are the fastest animals on earth, with emu and rhea not far behind.  A lack of flight reveals itself with smaller wings, larger bones, heavier bodies, and feathers that don't lock together for aerodynamics.  Ostriches and their kin are often exhibited with hoofstock at zoos, and tend to be treated as honorary ungulates.

 The flightless giants all tend to get lumped under the name of "ostrich", though a decent number of people also recognize the name "emu" as well.  They are popular zoo animals - surpassed only by penguins and flamingos in popularity with guests, I suspect - on account of their size, their visibility, and their boldness - you don't have to scour an exhibit to see an ostrich strolling around casually.  Their tremendous presence in cartoons, movies, television, etc have given them a great pop-culture presence, even manifesting itself with new species of fictional ratites, from Big Bird of Sesame Street to the Chocobos of Final Fantasy.  Perhaps being tall, flightless bipeds, with forward facing eyes and shorter beaks than many birds, we see a little of ourselves in them.

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