Ostriches provide more than roadside attraction

By Kimberly Miller

Arizona Summer Wildcat

If you blink you might miss it.

But if you pay attention while driving the stretch of Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix, you'll probably behold a scene more fitting of a zoo.

Mingling among stately saguaros and bushy mesquite are 2,000 goofy-looking, 8-foot tall, 300-pound prehistoric birds all residents of D.C. "Rooster" Cogburn's Ostrich Ranch.

Located in the shadow of Picacho Peak off exit 219, Cogburn's ranch attracts many surprised spectators who are just as curious about the ostriches as the ostriches are about them.

"I come down here about once a week to see the ostriches, and I'm not the only one," said Peter Kirby, a resident of Glendale who has a trailer home at a nearby R.V. park. "Everyone has seen cow ranches; there's nothing new in that. But this is really a delight, to get to see these beautiful animals so close."

Actually, Cogburn prefers that onlookers stay in their vehicles while viewing the ostriches but admits it's not an unusual sight to see four or five cars parked near the fence with their occupants sticking hands, food and just about anything else through to the birds.

Danna Cogburn, D.C.'s daughter and self-proclaimed "mother hen" to the baby ostriches, said although the imperial birds may look cute, they can be dangerous when approached by people inexperienced in handling them.

"We actually had an egg stolen recently," Danna said. "People do not realize that that's a very good way to get killed. They kick and peck pretty hard and they say one kick from a full grown male can disembowel a man."

Danna, who's expertise is caring for the infant ostriches, said stress is the number one killer of baby ostriches. They need a mother and protector to care for them around the clock. That's where Danna comes in. She is in charge of incubating the eggs and raising the baby ostriches after they hatch, about 100 a week.

"It's so neat," Danna said. "I love to watch them hatch. As many birds as I've seen, I never get over how cute the babies are. And I get to be the mother."

Impersonating an ostrich mom is a tough job. Danna said a large chunk of her 12-to-15-hour day is spent just sitting with the babies. And if you think her job is made easier by the high intelligence of the regal desert-dwelling birds, think again.

"They're as dumb as rocks," Danna said. "They are so stupid and curious. They will eat anything, even if it kills them."

Danna, a professional rodeo barrel racer who has a degree in computer science from the University of Central Oklahoma, got into the ostrich business about eight years ago when her father brought home a pair of babies. At the time, in her early 20s and living on a ranch in Guthrie, Oklahoma, Cogburn said she did not think breeding ostriches was a strange idea at all.

"We've always been in off-the-wall businesses," Danna said. "D.C. had a roller skating rink for 28 years, a miniature golf course and a water slide. But I think this is probably what we'll do the rest of our lives."

She said the Cogburn ranch is on the cutting edge of this fledgling business, but, she confessed, because it is so new, ostrich ranching is still a lot of hits and misses. Although it has been popular in South Africa since the mid-1800s, it has just begun to grow in the United States. One reason for that is the ability to get in on the ground floor.

Teresa Barbanell, who started an ostrich company called Blue Ridge Industries, got interested in the quirky bird in 1992 while working as an investment broker. In the first issue of her monthly newsletter, the Blue Ridge Ostrich Review, she explained the opportunity that the ostrich industry offers.

"Unlike many other industries, the ostrich industry has an 'open arms' policy for newcomers," Barbanell wrote. "Why, you may ask, does this industry have a distinct magnetism for recruiting a balance of people from varied walks of life? The answer is simple: foresight."

In health-conscious America, the number one market for ostrich is its meat. Being even lower in fat than turkey, Danna believes ostrich is the meat for the '90s.

To test her hypothesis, the Cogburns hold local ostrich events where they serve ostrich fajitas and burgers right alongside their beef counterparts.

The people absolutely love it," Danna said. "A lot of people thought it was actually better than beef."

But with only 150,000 to 200,000 ostriches in the U.S., the price for ostrich meat is sky high.

"If we were to get one percent of the beef market, we would have to slaughter six million ostriches a year," Danna said. "There just aren't that many around yet."

In a March 1994 article in The National Culinary Review, Chef James J. Muth outlines the benefits of breeding and eating ostriches over cattle. Muth wrote that an ostrich hen will lay an average of 45 to 50 eggs a year, while a cow is only capable of having one offspring a year.

"American eating habits are in a slow but steady state of transition," Muth wrote. "As research continues on the relationship between diet and health and as consumers become increasingly better educated, the opportunities for alternative meats like ostrich will expand."

Ostriches are also used for their feathers and hides. Musth wrote that one ostrich can yield more than 75 pounds of meat and 14 square feet of leather. Also, feathers are in high demand by car manufacturers who use them to dust their vehicles before painting.

Danna, who foresees Arizona becoming the ostrich capitol of America because of its dryness, sunshine and relatively clean air, stressed that ostrich ranching is a business and, although she loves the ostriches, they are not pets.

"Our goal and focus is to raise ostriches efficiently and in large numbers," Danna said. "The ostrich industry is a real business and I believe in it wholeheartedly. I love it. Even with all the hours I put in, I just love it."

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