Ostrich fostering

In a desert in Namibia, eggs 50 times heavier than those of most egg-laying animals are hatching. The shell is so strong the ostrich mother often helps the chicks out. The biggest advance in parenting here is that both parents look after the eggs. It’s a marriage of necessity, one that goes back to food and hungry mothers. Birds need to eat more than cold-blooded reptiles and if the father weren’t here, the female would either starve or leave. So the male does the night shift to keep the brood safe from hungry jackals.

To be even safer, ostriches spread the risks. Some of them lay eggs in the dominant pair’s nest, almost like cuckoos. The top couple don’t object, maybe it helps to have a few spare eggs in case a predator comes, or maybe there are just too many to count. Ostriches are good, intuitive parents, and have no obvious favourites in their mixed brood. The foster-chicks aren't fussy either and will imprint on any adult. The parent birds lift the chicks up with their beaks to encourage them to get up and about, though the rough treatment doesn’t look particularly helpful and the chicks totter about like children on stilts.

Whilst the ostriches are devoted to the whole brood, they don’t seem to care about specific chicks, even their own. Within hours of the majority of chicks hatching, the family needs to find water and move off in search. It’s a death sentence on any chicks still hatching.

Release date: 26 Nov 2009

3 minutes

Credits

Role Contributor
PresenterDavid Attenborough
ProducerMark Fletcher

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