On December 2, 2012, the last flock of baby ostriches born at the the Academy will be leaving for their new home. Some will be moving to new quarters at the Sacramento Zoo while others will grow up at OstrichLand USA. This breeding ranch in Solvang, explains Tim Steinmetz, the Academy’s Ratities Program Coordinator, provided the eggs which were hatched at the Academy.
Because adult ostriches can grow as large as 9 feet tall and weigh 350 pounds, they were never intended to be permanent part of the Academy’s living collections. “Plus,” Steinmetz says, “We have reached the end of the ostrich breeding season, so this is a natural time to phase out the ostrich component of the exhibit.”
For a look back at the ostrich’s hatching, watch the Behind-the-Scenes clip below:
It’s 5 pm on a cool, foggy evening in Golden Park. Tim Steinmetz, the Academy’s Ratites Program Coordinator, is on the public floor of the Earthquake exhibit, preparing the brood of ostrich chicks for one of their first thirty minutes of outdoor exercise in the West Garden.
Steinmetz, who previously served as the supervisor of the San Diego Zoo’s Avian Propagation Center, is the ostriches’ de facto Mr. Mom. He has done everything from setting up an incubation room in the Academy basement with eggs obtained from a Northern California ostrich breeding ranch to monitoring their growth, feeding them red clover and live crickets, and setting up an exercise schedule.
Not every egg comes from the same mother hen. Nor do they all arrive fertilized. And not every fertilized egg will develop successfully—it takes time to discover which ones will bear live chicks. There’s a six-week cycle for embryos to develop and hatch successfully from the shell.
Steinmetz divides his time between the live chicks on the public floor and incubation room in the Academy’s basement. For weeks, he has weighed and measured each egg, which look massive (about the size of a Peewee football) compared to common grocery store eggs from chickens. Next, Steinmetz uses a “Candler,” a machine that gently cradles the egg between two focused beams of light. When the interior of the porous shell is illuminated with a reddish-orange glow, it is possible to discern movement by the embryo, the viscous yolk sack, even its still-forming dark round eye. The eggs are returned to the incubator where it’s 97.6 degrees inside, with 25% humidity.
Chicks are active within 15 minutes of birth and it’s difficult to tell the males from the females without testing. (It becomes much easier once their feather colors darken and change within a year or two.) Twenty-four hours after hatching, Steinmetz takes the chicks upstairs to their new home as part of Earthquake: Life on a Dynamic Planet.
In the exhibit, they illustrate the impact of plate tectonics and seismology on the evolution of animal species. Ostriches belong to an order of flightless birds known as ratites (others include emus, rheas, and kiwis) all of which developed from a common ancestor on the ancient super landmass, Gondwana. These ratites evolved into separate species on the emerging continents of Africa, Australia, and South America.
At last the chicks—now a few weeks old, barely a foot tall, and completely fearless—are ready for their special outing.
“Listen,” Steinmetz grins as he unlocks the back door of the exhibit. He’s in a small entrance vestibule with rubber matting, a sink, and brooms. To his right is a sliding plywood door leading to a 6-foot by 14-foot enclosure where the ostriches sleep at night when they are not on public display. A loud, sweet, chirping like a high-pitched whistle or trill fills the room. “When left alone, they’ll sing,” he explains in his own Texas drawl. “When someone enters, they only stop because they’re such curious creatures.” True enough, the chicks storm towards him, examining his outstretched hand with tiny nibbles and the focused intensity of puppies.
Proportionately, the birds are all leg and neck, with tiny wings incapable of flight, pointed gray beaks, and two claw-like toes. The source of their beauty resides in their feathers—they are born with torsos covered in downy black, caramel, and white feathers. They look like spikey balls of fluff exploring their environment. Steinmetz easily gathers them into the pet-carrying crates and takes them outside.
Steinmetz is a fellow who takes his parenting obligation seriously. Over the course of his career, he’s cared for hundreds of exotic bird species and propagated critically endangered species such as the Micronesian kingfisher and the Guam rail. No surprise, then, that he’s invited his wife, Melissa, and their daughter, Sara, age five, to attend the ostriches initial exercise regime.
Once inside the lawn enclosure, no sooner does Steinmetz release the chicks from their pet carriers than he takes off across the enclosed section of lawn. He’s running fast and hitting the side of his khaki pants to make his car keys jingle. The idea, his wife explains, is to give them a sound to key off, encouraging the chicks to run after him.
And sure enough, they do. One chick is ever so slightly larger than the others with feathers more reddish than brown. “Go, Big Red,” shouts Steinmetz’ daughter. “Go!” A few are distracted by the special food set out for them (ratite starter: chopped green leaves, red clover, mealworms, and live crickets) but eventually all the chicks run after Steinmetz. To and fro, back and forth. Occasionally one flutters his tiny wings, a display of accomplishment and bravado. Then one collides into the path of another but it doesn’t faze them. Within moments, they get back up and start running again, Steinmetz leading the way. Delighted, his daughter cheers from the other side of the chain link fence.
“My daughter fell in love with ostriches ever since we watched The Penguins of Madagascar,” he says after running a few laps.
Ostriches have strong family bonds. “When the chicks are born, both parents will stand over them all day long, spreading their wings to create some shade from the African sun.” The parents stay with their brood for up to 7 months, at which point the young birds are 6 feet tall and large enough to protect themselves.
“Right now,” he adds, “the chicks are about a foot tall and weigh a few pounds but they can grow up to 9 feet tall and weigh as much as 350 pounds.” The legs of a mature ostrich can measure 5 feet tall—more than half its height.
One gathers that ostriches get pretty big, pretty quickly. In about six weeks time, these chicks will weigh about 35 pounds and grow close to three feet tall. “That’s about as big a bird as this enclosure was built to handle,” he says. “Can you imagine if we kept them for ten weeks? They’d be 60 pounds heavy and 4 feet tall.” He shakes his head. “There wouldn’t be enough space for them.”
When that milestone is reached, the ostriches will begin the next chapter of their storied lives at the Sacramento Zoo or another zoological institution. And Steinmetz will bring a new set of chicks up from the basement incubator. The plan, he explains, is to continually rotate in a new batch of ostrich chicks every six weeks or so until late fall or so. “It works in conjunction with the ostrich breeding season, where hens lay eggs from March through October.”
The most common myth people have about ostriches is that they bury their heads in the sand to hide from danger.
“Not true,” says Tim Steinmetz, the Academy’s Ratites Program Coordinator. “The male is very involved in family life. That image comes from photographers catching the male using his beak and long neck to make a home. They stand in the nest and dig sand out. I’ve seen nests that are ten feet in diameter. That’s where the hens go to lay their eggs.”
Second, they don’t hide from predators. They run. “Their long legs were built for speed,” says Steinmetz. “A mature ostrich can achieve speeds of 43 m.p.h. That’s faster than a lion or a hyena.” Fast Facts
• The public Ostrich exhibit space is 8 feet wide by 21 feet. The night enclosure is 6 feet wide by 14 feet long.
• It’s 95 degrees directly beneath the exhibit’s heat lamps.
• Ostrich eggs take 6 weeks to hatch. Young ostriches live in the family nest for about 7 months.
• Ostriches are mature at 12 to 15 months. They can propagate by the ages 2 to 3 years old. In captivity, an ostrich can live as long as 70 years with an average lifespan of 50 years.
• Ostriches eat “ratite starter,” a diet of chopped green leaves, red clover, live crickets, mealworms, and the occasional hard-boiled egg.
• Ratites are flightless birds that have a flat breastbone, lacking a keel for attaching flight muscles.
• Although penguins can’t fly, they are not ratites because they have a breastbone keel and use their wing muscles for swimming.
• Natural fiber feather dusters are created exclusively with ostrich feathers.
• An ostrich is the only bird to have a foot with 2 toes.
• Ostriches have the largest eye of any bird. In terms of square mass, their eyeball is the same size or larger than their brain.
Most of the Academy’s 38,000 live animals are relative newcomers, but a handful of them are old-timers who were at the Academy when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck on October 17, 1989. During your next visit, say hello to these silent witnesses of the ground-jolting event 23 years ago.
Name: Pierre Species: African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) Current age: 29 Can be seen: Frolicking with his fellow penguins in African Hall Fun fact: Pierre wore a custom-designed wetsuit in 2008 to help him stay warm when his feathers molted but didn’t grow back. His natural tuxedo eventually returned, and his story was made into a 2010 children’s book, Pierre the Penguin.
Name: Bocalo Species: giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas) Current age: at least 31 Can be seen: In the California Coast section of the aquarium (lower level)
Fun fact: With his bulging eyes, full lips, and gentle demeanor, Bocalo makes a lasting impression on all who visit his tank. The giant sea bass is a critically endangered species found off the coast of California and Mexico. Fished recreationally and commercially to near extinction since the mid-1800s, it was not protected until the late 1970s. Today, this rarely seen fish is making a gradual comeback due to its slow sexual maturity and a single annual spawn.
Name: Methuselah Species: Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) Current age: at least 74 Can be seen: In the Water Planet section of the aquarium (lower level) Fun fact: Methuselah arrived at the Academy in 1938, and it is believed that he is one of the oldest animals living in a U.S. aquarium. Lungfish live in oxygen-poor pools. They have lungs and gulp air at the surface to supplement their gills.
Name: none Species: alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) Current age: at least 40 Can be seen: In the Swamp exhibit with Claude, the albino alligator Fun fact: In 1972, airline employees discovered this group of turtles on their way to becoming soup at a San Bruno restaurant. Transporting these animals for food is illegal, so they were turned over to the Academy, where they have lived ever since.
Name: none Species: alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) Current age: at least 63 Can be seen: In the tank opposite the Swamp (lower level) Fun fact: The intimidating alligator gar is one of North America’s largest freshwater fishes. It is native to the slow-moving rivers and swamps of the southeastern U.S. By imitating a log, this fish can get close to prey, then snap up an unsuspecting meal.
Do you remember the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake? Share your memories in the comment box.
Helena Carmena-Young, the Academy’s senior manager of teacher education, is in the midst of a presentation in the third-floor Education Lab. This is where Carmena-Young more commonly leads monthly professional development workshops for Bay Area teachers.
Today, she is explaining how materials created in-house for the Earthquake exhibit and planetarium show will be made available online to Bay Area educators.
Carmena-Young prepares the launch of the Academy's first coursework offering on iTunes University.
“We’re partnering with KQED to launch a new educational course on iTunes University,” Carmena-Young says, “starting with our new Earthquake materials.” Maybe it’s her background as a middle-school science teacher, but it’s not long before Carmena-Young jumps up from her computer to start diagraming her program on the whiteboard.
“We are going to help teachers and students visualize complex geology concepts,” Carmena-Young says, “and we’re going to use these visually simulating digital assets to do it.” She is pointing to the boxes she’s drawn labeled planetarium vignettes, infographics, specimen photos, and online games. “Teachers are starving for resources,” she says. “This is going to be eye candy for them.”
The field of education is changing, Carmena-Young explains, with more people demanding access to high-quality information and self-paced learning environments. “We want to be part of this evolution,” she says. “Our enduring goal is to extend the museum-going experience and export the Academy’s expertise outside of these walls.”
While the Academy has already made its videos and podcasts available for free on iTunesU, Carmena-Young is spearheading the effort to place Earthquake-related course work, classroom activities, and student-friendly digital assets directly into the hands of teachers to use in the classroom.
The new iTunes University course will feature a five-chapter syllabus on plate tectonics, zeroing in on geology, the Bay Area’s history of seismic shocks, preparedness, including a section on the new Bay Bridge from KQED. It will also feature snippets from the new Planetarium show, activities for engagement, vocabulary, and interactive content.
This month, Carmena-Young and her colleagues in Student Education are planning special testing sessions with selected teachers and students to experience the online course, preview the exhibit, and provide feedback. This enables the Academy’s education department to fine-tune the course offering in time for its public launch on August 15 when Carmena-Young is hosting a earthquake educator preview open to all registered Bay Area teachers.
“This is a pilot program,” Carmena-Young adds. “Online coursework enables us to curate the information into a valuable learning experience and present these materials in a meaningful, accessible way.”
Teachers, want to register for the Earthquake Educator Preview? To learn more about this free workshop, click here.