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Why do ostriches have red meat instead of white?

Ostriches are raised for their lean red meat. These ostriches are seen at a commercial farm.
Ostriches are raised for their lean red meat. These ostriches are seen at a commercial farm.
Dima Korotayev/Pressphotos/Getty Images

Standing up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall with lanky legs, massive bodies, huge overbites and eyes the size of a child's fist, an ostrich looks like an avian punch line [source: San Diego Zoo]. These birds are no laughing matter, though. They're the largest birds alive, and they can kill a lion with one swift kick.

The ostrich is different from almost all other birds. They belong to a family of birds called ratites, which includes emus and rheas as well, and they are easy to tell apart from other winged creatures. For one thing, these birds can't fly.

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As strange as it seems for a bird to be flightless, it makes sense if you consider flight as a way to escape predators. Ostriches don't need that particular escape route because they can sprint at up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph) and run long distances at more than 30 mph (50 kph) [source: San Diego Zoo]. They're the fastest animal on two legs. Their speed is even more impressive when you consider they can weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg) [source: USDA]. While they don't fly, their wings aren't useless: They serve to balance the ostrich while it runs and act as rudders to quickly change direction at top speed. Male ostriches also use their huge wingspan to attract females in mating season.

Ostriches live mostly in desolate desert climates, so they have to be pretty flexible in their diet. They'll eat almost anything: plants, lizards, seeds, locusts and stones are common parts of their diet (yes, stones -- they help to crush up the other stuff they eat). One rancher has reported his ostriches swallowing tennis balls -- and a kitten [source: NWF]. On farms, ostriches' small and nonpicky appetite makes them a good investment. They grow faster than cattle on much less food. They reproduce more often than cows, and they sell for a lot more because their meat is considered a delicacy, at least in the United States. In Europe and South Africa, it's actually pretty common fare.

Why's their meat so special? For one thing, while ostrich meat is poultry, it's red, not white like most other birds. And this red meat, which looks and tastes much like beef, is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than not only beef, but also white meats like chicken and turkey. All ratites have red meat. It has to do with their muscles. On the next page, we'll find out what meat actually is and what makes ostrich meat red instead of white.

An intrigued ostrich peers at the camera. Ostriches, unlike other birds, have red meat.
An intrigued ostrich peers at the camera. Ostriches, unlike other birds, have red meat.
Mayela Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Every animal has meat. Humans have meat. But it's not like "meat" shows up on diagrams of the human body. So what part of the body is it then? Meat is muscle. When an animal dies, muscle undergoes a transformation and becomes what we call meat. And the type of muscle it is determines whether that meat is red, dark or white.

First, some terminology: "Red meat" is meat that's a reddish color before cooking, like beef, venison and ostrich. "White meat" is very pale before cooking and includes chicken, turkey and pork; and "dark meat" usually refers to a slightly darker, higher-fat part of an animal that also produces white meat -- like the wing of a chicken. Rabbits are also considered dark meat.

The primary defining factor in whether animals are white meat or red meat is whether their muscles are mostly fast-twitch or mostly slow-twitch. Slow-twitch muscles are used often, for extended activities like constant walking, standing or flying. It has a lot of the protein myoglobin, which stores large amounts of oxygen to support this long-term energy use. Myoglobin is reddish in color, sort of like hemoglobin in blood, which is why red meat can look so bloody. Ostriches, like cows, spend most of their time standing and walking. Even ostrich wings get a lot of exercise, since they play such a central role in steering. Ostrich muscles are mostly the slow-twitch kind. Slow-twitch muscle is red meat.

Chickens and turkeys, on the other hand, don't use their muscles as much. Most of their muscle mass is the fast-twitch kind, used for short bursts of activity, like a quick jump into the air that constitutes most of their flying. Fast-twitch muscles use glycogen for energy -- there's not much myoglobin there. Glycogen is pale in color. Fast-twitch muscle is white meat. (See How Muscles Work to learn more.)

An interesting exception to the rule is the "dark meat" in poultry. Body parts like legs get a lot of activity -- chickens are walking constantly -- so there's more myoglobin in their leg muscles than in, say, their breasts, which are seldom used, as chickens don't fly very much. Because they use their legs for extended periods or time, there's more myoglobin in leg meat, which is why it's darker than breast meat.

For more information on ostriches, ostrich meat and the economics of ostrich farming, hop to the links below.

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Sources

  • A Bird Like No Other. National Wildlife Magazine. http://www.nwf.org/nationalwildlife/article.cfm?issueID=109&articleID=1366
  • Is ostrich meat healthy? WiseGeek. http://www.wisegeek.com/is-ostrich-meat-healthy.htm
  • Ostrich. National Geographic. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/ostrich.html
  • Ostrich. San Diego Zoo. http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-ostrich.html
  • Ostrich meat facts: nutrition and comparison information. Ostrich.com. http://www.ostrich.com/meat/meat-nutrition.html
  • Raising and Marketing the Big Bird. Mother Earth News. http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/1996-12-01/Raising-and-Marketing-Ostriches.aspx
  • Ratites (Emu, Ostrich, and Rhea). USDA. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Ratites_Emu_Ostrich_Rhea/index.asp
  • Understanding Meats: Why Red Meat is Red and Why White Meat is White. Ezine. http://ezinearticles.com/?Understanding-Meats:-Why-Red-Meat-is-Red-and-Why-White-Meat-is-White&id=329353
  • What is the Difference Between Red Meat and White Meat? WiseGeek. http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-difference-between-red-meat-and-white-meat.htm

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