Bird Brain

The ostrich, the world's largest bird, is indigenous to Africa, where ranchers have raised it for commercial purposes for more than a century.

A decade ago, entrepreneurs thought that southeastern Arizona would make a good spot for commercial ostrich breeding. A group of South Africans settled near Willcox, and others were persuaded to take up the business.

They were right about the climate for raising, but not for selling, the bird. Ostrich meat, though healthier than beef, never tantalized the public's taste. The bird's handsome leather didn't tan the public hide. Nor did the feathers, though a prime feature of Brazil's Carnaval, tickle the public fancy.

Investors, including some who had never farmed or ranched in their lives, flocked to the scheme anyway. As long as there were more of them willing to pay top dollar for eggs, chicks or breeding birds, the industry grew. But, lacking demand for the products, when disease became rampant the ostrich industry, like the flightless bird, was grounded.

Karen Weston Gonzales, who was personally involved in the business, reports on the rise and fall of the industry in this issue. It's a reminder of the consequences when humans foul the nest.

An ostrich, which stands more than six feet tall and can weigh 400 pounds, could kill a man with a swift kick to his chest but, armless as it is, the bird quickly learns from a man's sharp slap to its neck who is dominant.

Ostriches can live to be 70 years old unless, of course, they fall prey to human greed, as they did in southeastern Arizona, where they died by the thousands.

Despite legend, the ostrich does not hide its head in the sand. Man does that.