Birds of a Feather

A Look at the World’s Largest Bird

With its enviable eyelashes and gorgeous plumage, the ostrich is a quintessential part of the South African landscape. The dusty town of Oudtshoorn is widely known as the ostrich capital of the world for the simple reason that it has the ideal climate for breeding these big birds. When feathers became a major fashion accessory in Europe and Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the supply of wild ostrich feathers began to dwindle. As supply lessened, demand and prices increased. Subsistence farmers who had eked out a living as transport riders tore up their crops and set about domesticating these prehistoric creatures. Breeding pairs were fenced off, the ostriches thrived, and farmers found themselves pocketing up to R200 per kilogram for their feathers, a staggering amount of money in those days.

Suddenly, this sleepy Karoo dorpie featured big on the world map as traders and foreign businessmen flocked to the area to get a piece of the action. With the money that flowed in they built themselves ‘feather palaces’, extravagant sandstone homes with palatial turrets and stained-glass windows. But the ostrich feather boom ended as quickly as it had begun. Increasing competition, overproduction and the popularity of open motor cars (not conducive to wearing feathers of any sort) meant that in 1913, the same year that ostrich feathers fetched their highest price, demand ceased. South Africa and London had warehouses full of feathers, but no buyers. The commodity that was, for a time, South Africa’s fourth largest export was suddenly worth next to nothing.

Almost exactly 100 years later ostrich farming suffered another major blow. In 2012 an outbreak of bird flu meant that 40,000 ostriches had to be culled and the meat discarded. For the first time in history Oudtshoorn was empty of ostriches, farms had to close, and many people lost their livelihoods. The ostrich meat export industry came to a standstill and for a time this meat was extremely scarce. It took four years for the industry to recover from the outbreak.

Happily, ostrich meat is back in abundance and is not only delicious, but a healthy alternative to other red meats with its low fat and sodium content, high amounts of iron and preferable fatty acid profile. It comes in the same cuts as beef: steaks, fillets, medallions, ground meat and roasts. Though the ostrich is large, most of its meat comes from the thigh and hindquarter, with lesser amounts from the forequarter. Ostrich boerewors is delicious, as is ostrich droëwors and biltong. The meat from these birds is so lean, it must never be overcooked: rare or medium-rare is the only way to prepare it.

While trends come and go, the glamour and timeless sophistication of the ostrich feather has kept it a firm staple in haute couture. It flounces down Parisian runways, bounces its way through burlesque shows, beautifies capes and wedding gowns and gives flair and fabulosity to everything it adorns. By the same token ostrich leather, distinctive for its elegant pattern of bumps — or vacant quill follicles – is regarded as

an exotic luxury item and is used by designers such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Hermès to make high-end belts, bags, wallets, jackets and shoes.

From the Karoo to the Kalahari, no road trip across the country is complete without at least one sighting of these unusual creatures: the females in their muted greys and browns; the males, flamboyant and dashing in their striking, tuxedo tones, adding a touch of quirky glamour to our lovely landscape.


While it is a bird, the meat of an ostrich resembles that of beef a great deal more than poultry. In cooking ostrich, it is treated in much the same way as beef, except that it is far leaner and therefore more prone to being overcooked and tough. When cooking ostrich, keep the following in mind:

  • The best way to serve ostrich is medium-rare to rare.
  • When cooking, don’t get distracted. Watch the meat, searing it for about 2 ½ minutes on either side (depending on the heat). When slicing it, it should still be dark pink on the inside.
  • Ostrich loves a variety of vegetables and savoury sauces.


Generally, ostrich is far more sustainable as a source of protein than beef, needing less land and resources, and produces less methane. 

  • Ostriches consume two-thirds less water than beef cattle.
  • Raising beef requires about three times more feed than ostrich.
  • On average, ostiches require 1/50 of the land that cattle do, and emit 1/10 of the greenhouse gasses.


Over and above its heavily reduced environmental impact, ostrich is a far healthier choice than beef when looking to replace your source of red meat with something leaner.

  • At roughly 97% fat free, ostrich contains very little cholesterol (about ¼ to ½ that of beef), but at the same time, it’s very high in protein and iron.
  • Because are ostriches invariably raised in the wild, which means they’re not treated with hormones and steroids, resulting in a cleaner meat.