The Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes)

The Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes)

Ostriches belong to a group called ‘ratites.’ (Group of flightless birds)

When we think of flightless birds, a handful of species come to mind, such as ostriches, rheas, emus, kiwis, penguins, and cassowaries. There are approximately 60 species of flightless birds. They would also include rails, grebes, ducks, and even a parrot, the Kakapo.

Somali Ostriches are unique members of the flightless bird species that share their lineage with the Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus). However, they have distinctive characteristics that set them apart from their cousins. For instance, unlike the Common Ostriches, which have pink legs and necks, Somali Ostriches sport a distinct blue hue on their necks and thighs. Somali Ostriches are known for their slightly smaller sizes and different feather patterns. Following extensive genetic studies, Somali Ostriches were only recognised as a separate species in 2014.

With their captivating height, weight, and strength, Somali Ostriches hold a special place in the hearts of bird enthusiasts and researchers. Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of these mesmerising birds, exploring their identification, breeding, history, habits, and habitat.


Somali Ostriches have long legs and necks and stand up to 2 m. Ostriches are by far the largest and heaviest birds in the world. They can weigh over 100 kg. They are also quite social, often engaging with others in pairs or small groups. Their diets mainly consist of plant matter, including leaves, seeds, and fruits, but they are known to consume insects like beetles and locusts and small vertebrates like lizards and rodents when necessary.

Somali Ostriches have blue-coloured necks and thighs. They were called Blue-necked Ostriches. Common ostriches, on the other hand, have pink legs and necks.

Kissing Ostriches

During the breeding season, Somali Ostriches’ bluish colours become brighter blue, but note that the front of the legs and bills become bright pink.

Somali Ostriches’ necks also lack the white rings of the Common Ostriches.

The males’ feathers are mostly black with white tails and white on the end of their wings. The females are primarily brown with grey beaks and legs. This colouring of the females helps with camouflage, especially when she is incubating.

Ostriches have small heads relative to their bodies. They also have huge eyes, reported as the largest eyes of any land vertebrate. These eyes help them spot predators from a long way off. The eyes of male ostriches are pale grey-brown, while females have blue-grey eyes.

They have very long eyelashes that protect their eyes.

Ostriches also have only two toes on their feet. Their main toe has a single huge nail, but the outer toe frequently lacks nails. These huge feet are used for defence, digging scrapes, and digging for food.

Although ostriches cannot fly, they have a wingspan of about 2 m. These wings are known to help protect their upper thighs during hot days. The wings are also used to help their manoeuvrability and in courtship displays.


You will see Somali Ostriches in and around the Horn of Africa (HoA). The Horn of Africa is also known as the Somali Peninsula. The situation of the Hoa is on the easternmost part of the African Peninsula. 

You can find the Somali Ostrich in the following countries: eastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, southern Djibouti, and most of Somalia. 

A Somali Ostrich Wandering in Chalbi Desert


Somali Ostriches have a different feeding preference compared to Common Ostriches. They browse for food in areas with thicker vegetation, such as shrublands, grasslands, and even cultivated pastures. On the other hand, Common Ostriches prefer to graze for food in arid areas and open savannas.


Somali Ostriches move around browsing in the daytime and are seen alone or in pairs. They will roost in the early evenings and stay in one place at night.

Ostriches are fast runners and can reach up to 70 km/h. Ostriches especially need this speed as they are hunted by the fastest mammals on the planet, the Cheetah.

When predators are nearby, ostriches lie down on the ground with their necks flat and stay still. With their natural colours, they blend in with the surroundings and appear like a pile of dirt.

When defending themselves, ostriches can inflict serious injury with their powerful kicks.


Breeding times are mainly dependent on the environment. When rainfall arrives, the food resources for the Somali Ostriches increase considerably. This makes it much more viable to create young during these periods.

Ostrich in the Meadow

Ostriches will reach sexual maturity within 3-4 years. The males are polygynous and may take more than one female in the breeding season. Somali Ostrich male’s skin changes to a brighter blue, indicating to females that the males are ready for breeding.

The males have a unique courtship ritual. They start by fluffing their feathers, even dropping to the ground on their knees. They then move their heads sideways and sway their bodies. This is just part of the ritual.

Females, if they like what they see, will lower their wings, shaking them. The pair will then complete their courtship.

Male ostriches will scrape away clearings on the ground and line them with twigs and grass. These would be communal nesting sites. Once finished, males will show the nests to females. The female who accepts the nest first becomes the dominant female.  Each female would lay about two to five eggs in the same nest. The clutch size per nest would be about twenty eggs. The dominant female will keep her eggs in the middle. The minor females only lay their eggs when the dominant female is not laying.

Let’s talk about their eggs for a second. They are the largest of all eggs in the avian world.

  • Shape               Oval
  • Colour              Beige
  • Length              14 – 16 cm
  • Width               11 – 13 cm
  • weight              1 – 1.5 kg (20 times heavier than chicken eggs)

The ostriches share incubation duties for optimal concealment. The females will incubate during the day because of their drab colours. The males will incubate at night. Their black plumage would blend into the darkness. This lasts about 23 days.

Although common, unborn chicks do not have ‘egg teeth’ to help them break out of their shells. Instead, they do have strong muscular contractions that help them break out.

Fledglings will leave the nest in about three days and reach a half-adult size in about 4-5 months. Full height at 12 months. Both parents will rear them. Creches of up to 50 chicks of different ages are usually formed.

Ostriches have a deep booming call (boo boo booooooh hoo) by the male, especially in the breeding season (really close to a lion’s roar)

Closeup Shot of Female Somali Ostrich


Somali Ostriches are omnivores and prefer to eat succulents, roots, shrubbery, and seeds. They will also eat the odd lizards, snakes, and rodents.  Somali Ostriches do not have teeth, so they swallow sand and pebbles to help their gizzard break up their food. The gizzard breaks the food into a fine paste, which is then sent to the intestines for digestion.

These stones are never passed through the ostrich’s digestive system but rather get worn down. The stones will continually be replaced by the ostrich when needed.


Somali Ostriches are listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable. They are hunted for skin, meat, feathers, and eggs. So, as you can imagine, there are some serious concerns.

The feathers are used in the fashion industry for ceremonial and practical purposes like feather dusters. Ostrich eggshells are used as water carriers, tools, jewellery, and ornaments. The ostrich skin is used to make leather. Their meat is also considered a delicacy.

It is speculated that commercial farming of Somali Ostriches has saved this species from extinction. There are still Somali Ostriches in the wild. In Kenya, these ostriches can be found in Samburu National Park, where they are protected.

History and Lineage

Somali Ostriches were subspecies of the Common Ostriches until 2014, when they were identified as a separate species.  Their DNA has been studied, and it seems that the Somali Ostrich’s DNA diverged from the Common Ostrich some 2-3 million years ago. The study also included the now-extinct Arabian Ostrich.

The Arabian Ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) used to be found around the Arabian Peninsula. They became restricted in certain areas with these regions’ droughts and drying up. They became extinct in the 1940s due to hunting and the increasing aridity of places where they roamed.

Close-Up Photo of an Ostrich


Somali Ostriches are majestic in stature. The males stand tall, with beautiful black and white plumage. They are known for their unique blue colouring of necks and legs.

These ostriches roam the Horn of Africa bushy and thickly vegetated areas. As herbivores, they help control plant growth and maintain a balance in the Ecosystem. They can also help spread seeds through their faeces, which will help reforest areas and support plant diversity.

Not known for flight, the Somali Ostrich is nonetheless fleet-footed and grounded in their areas within the Horn of Africa.  They embody the resilience and beauty of the African wilderness.

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