Looking for a nest egg? Try one of these rare birds

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

November 15, 1992|By J. Michael Kennedy | J. Michael Kennedy,Los Angeles Times

LEANDER, Texas -- Call it the Ratite Rage. Call it big-tim money, the hottest fad in farmdom.

Ratite? As in flightless birds. We're talking ostriches and emus here, the former being the largest and dumbest bird in the world; the latter being the similar but slightly smaller national symbol of Australia and not very high on the brainpower scale, either.

But get this: These birds are now being raised in every state in the United States, even in chilly Northern climes. They're being raised in Canada, for that matter. Because, at the moment anyway, they are worth a fortune.

Retirees are investing their life savings in pairs of the birds, hoping for financial security in the coming years. Investors are plowing millions into them and are looking for major returns on their money.

This is not a joke. Does $65,000 for a pair of ostriches sound like a joke? That's what Texas breeder Gina Davis sold a pair for recently, 18 months after buying them for $25,000. Five years ago, a pair sold for $5,000.

But why the bull market in big, dumb birds?

The answer is that those getting in the business believe they have found two animals, long raised under strict controls in their native habitat, that offer a variety of lucrative and very marketable uses.

The ostrich's hide has always been valued for leather goods; its feathers for dusters and decoration. But now the meat of the ostrich is being touted by those raising it as the food of the future. It is red, like beef, but contains only a touch of cholesterol.

The American Ostrich Association, a breeder group based in Fort Worth, Texas, touts ostrich as being much more akin to filet mignon than, say, chicken, but with the added benefit of having extremely low fat and cholesterol content.

At the posh Huntington's restaurant in Dallas, ostrich sells well -- especially as part of the mixed grill and another dish in which it is served with a sun-dried cherry vinaigrette. The Cuyama Buckhorn Restaurant in New Cuyama, Calif., sells ostrich burgers for $9.95 a pop, fries and salad included.

The meat of the emu is much the same, but it also produces large amounts of oil that is sold in Australia as a remedy for everything from rheumatism to ant bites.

Only a few places, however, are offering ratites on their menus because of the high cost, as well as the fact that almost all the birds are now being used to increase the breeder stock. And that is the market where prices are off the charts.

The ostrich and emu craze is creating such a frenzy that prices seem to be jumping daily.

Less certain now is whether there will be a major downside to the fad. Sooner or later, prices must go down as the bird population goes up. So the question is whether people paying top dollar for their birds will recoup their investment, much less make the fortune that now seems to be there for the taking.

Then, too, there is the question of whether ostriches and emus will go the way of other animals that have made a splash over the years before plummeting in value. These include chinchillas and Shetland ponies in the '50s, ferrets in the '70s and, most recently, potbellied pigs.

Dr. Jim Jensen, who heads the zoological medicine program at Texas A&M University, said a pregnant potbellied pig that sold for $10,000 three years ago now costs about $300.

But right now, talk is all on the upside. Here in Leander, emu rancher Jody Giddens estimates there are 20 or 30 breeders within a 30-mile radius of his place, with more coming on board all the time.

"The market is going crazy," said Waymon Gilbert, who lives down the road from Giddens and is himself a recent entrant in the ratite craze. "The demand right now is so strong you can get $10,000 for a pair of emus that aren't even a year old."

Breeders are now taking deposits on chicks that might not be delivered for several years.

Experts say it will be years from now before the ratite population will be large enough to begin slaughtering them for mass consumption.

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