Q: What is your job?
A: I work at an ostrich farm. I pick up the eggs, clean out the water buckets, and sell ostrich-themed bric-a-brac to tourists.
Q: What are some examples of the bric-a-brac?
A: Feathers, lots of feathers, stuffed animals… headbands with feathers seem to be really popular…
Q: Is this your full-time job?
A: I’m a graduate student in southern California. I work full-time in the summer and part-time during the school year.
Q: Where is this farm?
A: It’s near Santa Barbara wine country. It’s mostly run as a tourist trap. In the mid-90s it was opened as a meat farm. At the time, entrepreneurs thought that ostrich meat would be the next new thing. It’s huge in South Africa. But obviously it never took off here, and a lot of the farms closed.
I guess ostrich farming has a history in southern California. In the early 1900s, late 1800s, Victorian fashion called for a lot of giant feathers. At the time, the first American ostrich farm opened in southern California.
The farm has 54 adult ostriches and 22 emus on 33 acres. The emus are the ostriches’ smaller, better-tempered cousin.
The ostriches basically stand out there all day, just biting at things to see if they’re edible. There are coyotes out there too but I think the coyotes are afraid of the ostriches really. Thankfully we’ve never lost an ostrich to predators.
Q: That means you’ve lost them to other things?
A: Yeah… well, we’ve just started hatching babies, and we were going to let the babies wander but they came up the path and into the parking lot, which wasn’t good…
We built an enclosure for them but then when they’re in a smaller space they peck at the ground obsessively and they can get an obstruction in the organ between their gizzard and stomach. Or they might eat a bit of plastic or just too much sand.
One baby drowned in its own water dish. They’re not too smart. We had a visitor from South Africa once who had experience with ostriches and he said, “Every day they wake up and wonder how they can kill themselves.”
Q: Are you ever scared of them?
A: If you’re giving out the energy that you’re not scared and you’re in charge, then it’s fine. We always go out with shovels or long sticks though. People are always amazed when you jump into one of the pens.
They do have two giant legs so you have to watch out for kicking, at the beginning of mating season in particular.
Q: Do they have teeth?
A: They bite at you but they don’t have teeth that could really hurt you.
They’re fairly territorial. They’ll chase around a juvenile till it dies. They’ll jump into the emu pens. They always want to see what’s going on. They’re not malicious though, they’re just really curious.
Occasionally they’ll injure each other fighting because they just chase each other around all day.
Q: Does your graduate degree have anything to do with farming?
A: I am getting my PhD in music theory, but I do have a landscaping/gardening background. When they interviewed me they asked, “Can you create a water feature?” and I said “Yes,” so I think that’s why they hired me.
Q: Do you really know how to put in water features?
A: Yes, though I’ve been there four/five months and I haven’t yet.
Q: Can you tell the difference between the individual ostriches?
A: Some of them. One has a jaw that doesn’t close straight on—we call him Popeye. Some are more or less aggressive than others.
Q: Don’t ostriches run really fast?
A: They run 30 miles per hour pretty easily, though they can get up to 45. They’re the fastest thing on two legs.
Q: So there is a fence around the perimeter or something to keep them in?
A: Yes, there’s a fence around the perimeter. Then we have a few different pens: one for breeding, one for picking eggs, one for the juveniles.
Q: Do you have to move the ostriches between pens?
A: Yes, to move one, ideally you grab its head, force its head down low, and slip a sock over it. The owner’s nephew taught me how to sock an ostrich.
Q: How many eggs do they lay?
A: They lay eggs during the laying season, which is January through late August or early September. The females lay one egg every 2-3 days, and the gestation period is 40-50 days.
Q: How do you collect the eggs?
A: During the day the female sits on the nest. At night the males do. The males leave more easily so we wait until they are on their shift and then we chase the males away.
The emus are totally different. Once the male impregnates the female, he sits on the nest the whole time and he loses a lot of weight. Meanwhile she goes out and mates with other emus and starts other nests.
Q: How big are the ostrich eggs?
A: One ostrich egg is the equivalent of 24 chicken eggs. They’re really tasty—not gamey at all. When I first started they gave me eggs but after a while I froze them because I couldn’t eat them all.
Q: Do you find yourself eating lots of ostrich products?
A: The eggs I probably eat once a week. I eat the jerky more than anything else I would guess.
Our ostriches aren’t raised for meat so we get it from a farm in Bakersfield. It’s mostly made into burgers and steaks. It’s like incredibly lean beef. It’s not like chicken at all.
If the question is “do I eat more ostrich meat now that I have this job,” the answer is an infinite amount because I used to not eat any at all.
I don’t feel bad eating them though, because they’re such jerks.