When I think of ostriches, the first thing that comes to mind is the poem “The Ostrich” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, which does not paint a very flattering picture of its subject. Unfortunately, it’s not too far off from the truth. Job 39: 13-17 attests to the fact that ostriches lack brain power, and Mr. Josiah Battaglia, a member of my church who grew up on an ostrich farm, claims that ostriches are “the dumbest animals ever raised.”
Despite their lack of brains, though, ostriches are surprisingly useful. Their meat, when cooked correctly, can taste very much like beef. Their hide makes ostrich leather boots, belts, and purses. In the 1990s, fashion often incorporated ostrich feathers. Finally, artists use ostrich eggs by painting or carving them. Early in the 1990s, when the beef market was struggling, Mr. Battaglia’s family decided to transform their cattle farm into an ostrich farm, hoping for a more profitable business. At times, the farm supported over a hundred ostriches spread out across 15 or 20 of its total 760 acres. With that many birds to take care of, plus ten adventurous children, the family definitely had their hands full.
Mr. Battaglia’s Uncle Tony invested in the ostrich business after selling his 50-some Domino’s pizza franchises. Ostriches were very expensive; a fertile egg could sell for $1,000. At one point, Uncle Tony purchased a proven breeding pair of ostriches for a whopping total of $30,000. Because of the birds’ value, they received very careful and attentive treatment on the farm. Ostriches are absent-minded and undependable parents, so the Battaglias looked after the ostrich eggs themselves. They placed newly-laid eggs in a refrigerator-sized incubator, where it heated and rolled them to simulate care from a mama bird. Every so often they were “candled” (held up to a light) to monitor the chicks’ growth and to predict the hatching times. The Battaglias emptied unfertilized eggs of their contents and used them for other purposes. When an egg hatched, the chick went to the specially-built and heated “chick barn” with neat rows of pens like a dog kennel and plastic matting on the floor. A garage door opened out of the barn onto a long, fenced-in run where the chicks exercised. The Battaglias’ friend Stacy was hired to be the “ostrich nanny” and watched over the chicks every day.
Ostriches love shiny things. Experiments have shown that when offered a bucket of food and a bucket of shiny nails, an ostrich will actually eat the nails. Similarly, while grazing, they don’t discriminate between grass and inedible objects. The Battaglias would perform exploratory autopsies on dead ostriches and inevitably discover all kinds of strange things—from rocks to Cherokee Indian arrowheads—in the poor birds’ gizzards. Other aspects of ostrich behavior are equally odd. For instance, when startled, an ostrich will do one of two things: either run straight and fast until it hits the fence and bounces off (“with toenails and feathers flip-flying all over”), or run very fast, stop and spin around, take off again, spin again, and repeat the process indefinitely.
In the winter of 1993, there was a blizzard on the farm, and a significant amount of snow fell. Unused to the cold weather, the ostriches were dropping like flies, so they moved to a temporary indoor corral. Unfortunately, the slick concrete floor in the corral, made “slicker than hog’s snot” by bird poop, caused a disaster of ostriches slipping and crashing all over and breaking their legs. As with horses, a broken leg usually means the end of an ostrich, so quite a few birds were lost during that winter.
Unsurprisingly, the farm drew many curious passers-by. People would stop on the state highway and pull off the road to watch the ostriches; Mr. Battaglia remembers once counting 14 cars lined up along the fence. To make the most of the situation, the Battaglias put a Coca-Cola machine and a snack machine full of ostrich jerky out by the road for onlookers.
While very entertaining, ostriches are also dangerous. Their single sharp, hooked toenail, combined with the tremendous force of a forward, stabbing kick, can cut a mule nearly in half with one strike. Because of this, along with the value of the birds, the Battaglia parents forbid their children to ride the ostriches… but attempts were made nonetheless. Mr. Battaglia remembers one time his brother Jesse successfully mounted an ostrich, although the triumphant moment was very brief. In a family with 8 boys, it was hard to discourage the desire to ride something. When an escaped emu reportedly got loose and disappeared in the woods nearby, the Battaglia boys took it upon themselves to single-handedly capture and ride it. One Sunday after church, Mr. Battaglia, two brothers, and their friend TJ went emu-hunting. They found an emu, chased it through the woods, and eventually intersected its path on a hillside and tackled it. Mr. Battaglia wrapped its long neck around a little tree and held it there while his brother John Mark straddled the bird’s back. They couldn’t hold it long, though—just before Jesse and TJ arrived to dog-pile on, the emu got loose and escaped, thus ending the promising adventure in disappointment.