Ratites at the OK Corral

March 2, 2012

Today was one of the most interesting days of my life.

Vanessa and I needed ostrich parts for dissection, so I had gotten in touch with Doug Osborne of OK Corral Ostrich Farms in Oro Grande. That was on the recommendation of Andy Farke, who got a bag of ostrich heads from Doug a couple of years ago (those heads are in the other Dr. Wedel’s research freezer, waiting for an ostrich head boiling party). I made plans with Doug to meet him at the farm at 9:00 this morning (Thursday). He warned me that it would have to be a quick visit because he was having a big load of hay delivered at 9:30 and he’d have to go supervise the unloading.

Oro Grande is 60 miles from Claremont and Pomona, in the high desert on the north side of the San Gabriels. I left here at 8:00 and rolled up to the marked parking area right at 9:00.

And immediately I could tell that things had not gone as planned. There were two hay trucks in the big ostrich paddock (post-Jurassic Park, any large outdoor enclosure for theropods must be referred to as a paddock), so the hay had clearly come early.

More worryingly, the gate at the corner of the paddock was open and the ostriches were starting to get out.

This is not the ranch, this is just the building where the empty eggs are stored.

I should stop here and mention a couple things. First, when I heard about OK Corral Ostrich Farms I assumed it was like almost every other ostrich farm in the United States: a side-business on a small farm involving a few dozen birds at most. It is emphatically not. Doug has 2500 ostriches, 2000 at Oro Grande and another 500 at a ranch in Elsinore; his operation is the largest ostrich ranch outside of Africa. The ostriches at Oro Grande are not all in the main paddock, but several hundred of them are, and these were starting to trickle out of the open gate when I rolled up.

Second, the open gate wasn’t the fault of the guys in the hay trucks. Doug later determined that the padlock had clicked but failed to engage when one of the ranch hands shut the gate behind the trucks. Stuff happens. He told me it was his first break-out in seven years.

Anyway, when I hopped out of the car there was one ostrich out, but more were moving that way. Fortunately Doug and I had been corresponding by phone so I had his number in my cell. I called him and told him what was up, and he told me to get back in my car (for reasons that will become apparent later on). A few minutes later he rolled up in his pickup, and by that time about a dozen birds were out, including a couple of males.

I jumped out to say hi. I hadn’t been real wild about waiting in the car in the first place. It was clear that getting the ostriches back in the paddock was going to be at least a two-person job, because one person would have to keep each batch of returning birds from running off while the other opened and shut the gate. I told Doug that I had grown up in the country and had to herd cattle before so he’d know I wasn’t as useless as I probably looked. (I hadn’t checked the weather, the temperature was in the 40s F, with a west wind gusting around 40 mph, and I was wearing my ODP t-shirt and no jacket.) He sized me up for about two seconds and said, “Okay, I’m going to start giving you orders.”

And for the next 30 or 40 minutes, that’s what he did. Singly and in groups of two and three, we got all the stray ostriches rounded up and back in the paddock. I’m sure for Doug it was a pain in the arse, having a dozen large, fast, expensive birds on the wrong side of the fence.

For me, it was 100% awesome. I love ostriches. I’ve dissected them, CTed them, measured their bones and sawed them open, looked at their intervertebral joints, eaten their meat, and watched them for ages in zoos, but this was my first experience on the ground with no fence between me and them.

Ostriches are freakin’ huge. I had only dissected babies, or adults piecemeal. It’s one thing to read about how big they are or watch one in a zoo, and quite another to have an 8-foot-tall, 350-lb male ostrich standing 4 feet away, clearly thinking about how freedom is on the other side of this slow, puny, annoying mammal. Doug coached me through flapping my arms and shouting “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and sometimes just getting up in their space and slapping them on the ass. He was keeping a weather eye on them for any aggressive behavior, and I was vacillating between bio-geek squee and healthy fear.

After the ostriches were all back in the paddock, the hay trucks were safely out, and the ranch hands had gotten a stern word about double- and triple-checking the padlock, Doug invited me in for a cup of coffee and we had a nice long chat.

Doug’s an interesting guy. He used to be a Wall Street millionaire, in the executive stratosphere of Merrill Lynch. One year he bought his mother four ostriches as a present. Those ostriches started breeding, his mom started selling them, and Doug realized that there was a living to be made farming ostriches and decided that was more appealing than working on Wall Street. He’s been doing this for 20 years.

As a farmer he has a refreshingly unromantic view of his birds. He loves ostriches, obviously, otherwise he wouldn’t have made a career out of them, but his love for them is grounded in practical matters like cutting the strings off the hay bales so the birds can’t accidentally strangle themselves. To him the birds are interesting but not exotic, and for me it was fascinating to talk with someone who raises them from the egg and works with them every day.

Speaking of eggs, after coffee it was time to go gather them from the paddock. It’s still too early in the season for the females to be laying many, but there were a few. By this time Doug was treating me like one of the team. He gave me an OK Corral trucker hat as a thank-you for my help with the ostrich-wrangling, and I got to ride along on the egg-collecting expedition. There was one small and probably communal nest of half a dozen eggs, and as we drove around the paddock we spotted a couple of isolated “rogue” eggs. The ranch hands gathered most of the eggs, but after they’d gone off to secure the hay I got to get out and pick up the last rogue egg. It was surprisingly heavy, like a shot put, and Doug gave me the same directions I give to students carrying human skulls: “Hold it securely in two hands, all the way to the box.”

I got to see some interesting behavior. The big males would come right up to the pickup, make dominance displays, and snap at us. The truck was dented from having been kicked by ostriches who didn’t want to share their considerable space (the paddock is probably between an eighth and a quarter of a mile on its long axis). Last year Doug was moving birds around and a big male kicked him hard enough to puncture his abdomen and lacerate his liver; he spent two weeks in the hospital. That’s why he wanted me to stay in the car when I first rolled up, and why he didn’t ask for help herding birds until he knew that I had some prior experience moving big animals  around.

Oh, way back at OU I had read about ostriches having sizable penises, and I can now attest to that as an eyewitness. One of the males flopped his out in front of the truck and it was about the same dimensions as my arm below the elbow. Elsewhere in the paddock I saw a male and a female working together to make zygotes*.

*That’s biologist-talk for “gettin’ their gangly theropod freak on”.

Back at the ranch house the eggs went into the incubator, Doug went into the walk-in freezer to get the ostrich necks I was there to buy, and I got a few minutes to just wander around and gawk. In addition to the ostriches Doug has about 50 emus in a separate pen, and roaming loose in the big fenced and gated area around the ranch buildings are turkeys, chickens, peacocks, and geese. Three tom turkeys–Los Hermanos Mariachis, Doug calls them–followed me around, puffing up and showing off. I could see some signs of interspecific socialization: the geese hung out with the turkeys by the ranch house, while the peacocks and chickens claimed the area around the little red building where the empty, blown-out eggs are stored. Doug talked about how the “Goose-waffe” would fly down the driveway in formation and use the open truck-shed as a hangar.

My last encounter of the day was also my favorite. Abigail is a tame female ostrich who wanders around the yard with the smaller birds. She broke her ankle when she was a baby, and rather than put her down Doug nursed her back to health (I told you he loves ostriches). She’s quite even-tempered and he said she would tolerate being hugged and petted. So while Doug finished up a last bit of farm business before he could escort me out to the gate, I hugged and petted Abigail. She is my height and my weight, but because her neck and legs are so long and skinny almost all of that weight is concentrated in her torso, which is very bulky and solid. Abigail pecked at my watch a few times and then ignored me; with all the petting and hugging she probably assumed I was an oversized and somewhat slow-witted child. That’s her on the right in this pathetically undersized photo.

I have two regrets from the day. First, the only camera I had along is the crappy one in my POS (positively old school) cell phone, which is why these pictures are few and mostly sucky. More sucky still is that Vanessa missed the ostrich wrangling. She had master’s program responsibilities today and I thought (and Doug thought) this would be a quick stop of just a few minutes to get some necks, not a three-hour ostravaganza. Doug invited us back for a proper tour sometime, and we will definitely go, but unless something goes terribly wrong there won’t be any more ostrich-herding opportunities. I feel like I got in on all the fun.

Previous SV-POW! posts on ratites, from our Things to Make and Do series:

Elsewhere on the web, Darren has blogged extensively about ratites at Tet Zoo. Dissecting Ozbert the ostrich is a good place to start, and that post has links to several others.

Finally, all of my pre-SV-POW! ratite stuff is linked from the ratite clearing house post on my old blog.


18 Responses to “Ratites at the OK Corral”

  1. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, this about the best darned thing I ever read. Feel my ostrich-related jealousy rays radiating all the way across the Atlantic!

  2. Darren Naish Says:

    Yeah, that was pretty sweet. Jealous. I’ve had hands-on experiences (if you will) with rheas and emus (and dead cassowaries), but not ostriches, yet. On the subject of their reproductive organs, I’m sure you’ve seen…

    Brennan, P. L. R. & Prum, R. O. 2011. The erection mechanism of the ratite penis. Journal of Zoology 28, 140-144.

  3. Darren Naish Says:

    And, while we’re here, may I be so bold as to link to this Tet Zoo article on ostrich anatomy.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hmm. But according to Brennan and Prum (2011:fig. 1b), where the scalebar is 2 cm, the ostrich penis is only 19.3 cm long. (I measured 21 pixels for the scalebar and 203 for the penis, using GIMP.)

    I can only conclude that Matt has unusually short forelimbs.

  5. Darren Naish Says:

    … or that he was dealing with an especially well-endowed ostrich?

  6. Elaine Machado Says:

    Wow, quite an adventure.I wish I hugged and petted an ostrich. I would love to hear some more of your observation on the behavior of those animals in such an open area, specially about neck an head movements (since I´m starting to work with sauropod neck).

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Elaine, great to hear from you. What’s your sauropod neck project and where are you doing it? You should be able to find plenty of sauropod neck material on this site: the best place to start is probably this page on our 2009 paper about neck posture: it links to a series of fairly substantial posts that elaborate the position we expounded in that paper.

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hmm. But according to Brennan and Prum (2011:fig. 1b), where the scalebar is 2 cm, the ostrich penis is only 19.3 cm long. (I measured 21 pixels for the scalebar and 203 for the penis, using GIMP.)

    Right. Because penis length never varies over time in an individual, or among individuals. :-)

    If you want a more authoritative statement, Doug said they got up to 15 inches. I just measured my right forearm and hand, from the inside of my elbow to the tip of my middle finger, as 15.25 inches. Evidently I missed my calling as a professional ostrich penis length estimator.

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    Awesome, by the way, how the comment thread’s almost immediate focus on the only remotely sordid detail in the entire post has been driven by the SV-POW!sketeers…all three of us!

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Right. Because penis length never varies over time in an individual, or among individuals. :-)

    Remember this figure was specifically from a paper about ostrich erections. It doesn’t seem unreasonably to draw the conclusion that the figure shows it in that state, does it?

  11. Marc Vincent Says:

    I just wanted to say that this was a great read! Well done. Also, given that they were taken on a mobile, the photos aren’t too sucky.

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    Remember this figure was specifically from a paper about ostrich erections. It doesn’t seem unreasonably to draw the conclusion that the figure shows it in that state, does it?

    No, but OTOH 19.3 cm long is a bit under 8 inches. That’s a bit less than the max span between my thumb and pinky. I know there are problems with estimating scale at distance, but I had just finished running around on the ground next to these things, and I am confident in saying that the ostrich penis I saw yesterday was MUCH bigger than eight inches, easily over a foot. And my rough guess of it being forearm-sized comports well with Doug Osborne’s 15-inch figure; remember that he’s been looking at ostriches inside and out for two decades.

    Some questions about the paper, which I admit I haven’t read yet: Was it a fully adult male? Do they give a measurement? Could it be the dreaded Inaccurate Scalebar of Doom again? Most importantly, do they claim that the figured specimen represents the max penis length for ostriches?

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    Ah. I have the paper now.

    I think it IS unreasonable to assume that the penis shown in the figure is fully extended, because they say in the methods section that they dissected a frozen ostrich cloaca, meaning that the penis was still tucked up inside and probably was not fully erect at the time of death. The paper is about the mechanism by which erections occur–which happens to be lymphatic in ratites rather than vascular as in humans–not about the max size of the resulting erections.

    More importantly, from page 142: “Reports that the ostrich penis changes from 20 cm when flaccid to 40 cm when erect (Gerhardt, 1933) are likely the result of the full protrusion of the phallus showing its entire shaft, rather than a significant change in length.” So a fully protruded ostrich penis can be up to 16 inches long according to Gerhardt, which I can’t help but point out is within an inch of both my estimate and Doug’s report.

    Game, set, and match, I think.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Game, set, and match, I think.

    I cannot deny that in the ostrich-erection arena, you have me beaten hands down.


  15. […] supposed to function as one. However, between teaching, taking a statistics class, and wrangling ostriches, I just haven’t had time to mess with the mount. My primary concern has been to assess the […]

  16. I’ve worked at a few zoos in my time and ostrich herding was one of my favorite duties. One of the first zoos I worked at was a non-accredited mess; ostriches weren’t part of my section, but occasionally when the zoo was short-staffed I had to help wrangle the critters at closing. Basically, this involved chasing the birds around the zoo’s mock savannah in a John Deere Gator until they re-entered their night-paddock. I’m really not sure what the Association of Zoos and Aquarium protocol is for ostrich herding (if it even has one), but, I don’t think this practice adhered it; sure was fun though.

    Also, in my time there I learned that (unfertilized) ostrich eggs are good-eating. The easiest way to get the contents out is to drill a hole at either end of the egg and drain it. They seem to have a much higher ratio of albumen to yolk than chicken eggs so, unless you have some kind of unnatural love for egg-white, it is advisable to to discard a good deal of it before cooking.

  17. […] among all the open-access discussion and ostrich-herding, we at SV-POW! Towers do still try to get some actual science done.  As we all know all too well, […]

  18. […] ostrich necks I went to Oro Grande to get last Thursday? Vanessa and I started dissecting them last Friday. The necks came to us pre-cut into […]

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