Friday Weird Science: Is that ostrich flirting with me?

Jan 13 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

So I don't know about you, but I have the WORST time getting my ostriches to get it on. I tried romantic lighting, mood music, hot tubs. But it turns out I was after all the wrong things. It turns out that ostriches...want me for ME.

Bubier et al. "Courtship behaviour of ostriches ( Struthio camelus ) towards humans under farming conditions in Britain" British Poultry Science, 2010.


So you might know that, though there are ostriches in the wild, people actually FARM ostriches (usually for meat and not for AMAZINGLY SIZED omelets). Of course a farming ostrich breeding operation is a bit different from a group of ostriches in the wild. The instant a lady plops out an egg, a farmer scoops it up and takes it away to be incubated and reared by humans (to minimize any potential problems with ostrich parents and to increase the rate of breeding cycle).

Of course, being raised by humans might have some effects on ostrich behavior. But what KINDS of ostrich behavior? Well, for a start the ostriches are not afraid of humans...but what if they like them? As in REALLY like them? The authors of this study wanted to examine whether the presence of humans changed the courtship behavior of ostriches.

Courtship behavior in ostriches takes two forms. The male will do a little courtship dance, flapping his wings out, squatting down, and waving his neck back and forth. At this signal, if the female likes what she sees, she'll flap her wings backward, while bending her neck forward, and making a clapping noise with her beak. And it turned out that the farmers of the ostriches were noticing MORE of this behavior when they were present. Was it possible that the farmers were turning the ostriches on???

Inquiring minds need to know.

So the scientists set up observation stations near several ostrich enclosures (the ostriches were grouped as one male to two females). They carefully kept THEMSELVES well out of sight and sound of the ostriches. Then they had humans walk by the enclosures, either relatively distant, or right up near the fence. As the humans walked by, the scientists watched the birds to see what they did.

And those ostriches...were happy to see the humans. Very happy. In fact, both female AND male ostriches solicited sex more than twice as often when the humans were nearby. 70% of the ostriches reliably hit on the humans when they were around. Turns out that being raised by humans can change what an ostrich is attracted to. The only exception to this was their control ostrich, a male which had been raised in Africa and then imported to the farm. He studiously ignored all humans, unless they got too close, in which case he was much more likely to be aggressive.

Unfortunately, this didn't actually increase the MATING of the ostriches (useful business model to produce more eggs, have the farmhands hang around to encourage the ostriches to new heights of romance!). Only one of the ostriches observed apparently tried to "take advantage" of the female ostrich getting all hot and bothered for a human. The rest never really got anything out of the deal (how the humans felt about this is unrecorded).

But the important thing to take away from this? Yeah, that ostrich IS looking at you that way.

Bubier NE, Paxton CG, Bowers P, & Deeming DC (1998). Courtship behaviour of ostriches (Struthio camelus) towards humans under farming conditions in Britain. British poultry science, 39 (4), 477-81 PMID: 9800029

EDIT: It turns out that the author of this study got an IgNobel for his research!!! And he did more research...on sea monsters. STAY TUNED. ­čÖé

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