Making feathered history

Kruger National Park | October 2020

With winter clearly behind us and the warmth of summer heat approaching at a rate of knots, the Singita Kruger Park concession has never looked more beautiful in the few years that I’ve called it home. Recent fires that swept through the northern parts of the concession were followed by early rains, turning the charred and seemingly lifeless scorched earth into a blanket of green that stretches past what the eye is able to see. Between the new blades of grass, a world of colour has burst up in the form of the most beautiful flowers. Seeds that have been lying dormant for years under the build-up of dead grass have now finally been given their opportunity to set their roots firmly into the soil and burst into bloom.

New life has come in many shapes and forms over the last month, but none more interesting and special than the discovery of a male ostrich proudly incubating a clutch of nine creamy yellow eggs early one morning. Chatting with our head tracker, Glass Marimane, who has been here since the lodges were built, has assured me that this is indeed the first record of ostriches nesting on the concession since 2001. Ostriches prefer vast open areas and it’s come as no surprise that the short grass and open plains that run along the depression, at the heart of our concession, has finally lured these massive birds in.

The nest itself is not much more than a scrape in soft ground or sand, dug out by the male and could very easily be overlooked if no eggs are present. The males will usually scrape a nest when alone and show the female at a later stage or do it in the presence of the female. If the nest is accepted by the female she will lie down and become the alpha female of that nest and subsequently be the one that guards and incubates the eggs. The male is fiercely territorial and will have numerous of these scrapes within his territory and even though there are other females within his territory, not all of these nest sites will be used. Shortly after mating the female will lay 12 to 15 eggs over a few days. Less dominant females within his territory will frequently lay eggs in the same nest but only after the dominant female has started laying and is not present.

The incubation duties are shared between the male and dominant female even when other females have used the same nest. Due to his black feathers the male will generally guard and incubate the eggs at night and the greyish brown colour of the female allows her to take over during the day when the eggs will be exposed to the harsh sun. On extremely hot days the male has been seen sharing the daytime duties too. The dominant female however is capable of identifying her own eggs from the others in the same nest and ensures that they are beneath her body and actively shifts the other eggs to the perimeter. This often being the reason some of the eggs never incubate properly and never hatch. Each egg can weigh up to 1,5 kilograms (3.3 lbs), be 15 cm long and 13 cm wide, thus making it the largest egg of any bird on the planet. However, the sheer size of the female makes it the smallest egg in the world in relation to her body! The thick shell offers vital protection from being crushed or cracked by the weight of the parents during the nine week incubation.

If all goes well during incubation and none of the eggs are predated, we are hoping to see nine new little ostrich chicks hopping around on the concession in the first few weeks of December.