An Easter shell game

Want to do up the annual hunt in a really big way? Emu ranchers have a suggestion, but it will involve some heavy lifting.

April 16, 2000|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun Staff

If the American Emu Association has its way this year, the Easter Bunny's got his work cut out for him. A few trips to the gym might help. mnThe emu association has suggested that consumers swap traditional dyed chicken eggs this year for the naturally colored -- and immense -- eggs of the emu. Weighing 20 ounces and standing 4 inches tall, the emu's egg is the Incredible Hulk of the poultry world, both super-strong and, well, deep green.

"There are three layers of color [in the shell]," explains Gary LeMaster, an Iowa artist and editor of the arts section of the online mag Emu's Zine (www.emuszine.com). "The outer layer most commonly is a dark green and the next level is an aqua, or baby blue, and deep inside is a paper thin layer of pure white."

The gradations of color in the shells (the inside looks like a normal egg, just more of it) make them perfect for uses other than cutting down on Easter egg decorating time, like carving. LeMaster, 51, who is colorblind, found the eggs the right canvas for him.

"I've always looked for media where color doesn't matter," he says, "so it doesn't turn out looking like a salesman's sport coat."

Using a high-speed, modified dentist's drill that rotates as many as 500,000 times per minute, LeMaster etches intricate designs into the eggs, creating patterns he describes as being as delicate as lace work. Sculpting emu eggs with precision is a relatively new art, just a couple of decades old. It needed the development of the fast drill to get moving. But emu egg art in general is a time-honored -- if somewhat underground -- tradition, dating back to the early aboriginal craftsmen of the birds' native Australia.

"People do all sorts of things with them," says Alexandra Hall of Berlin, Md., an emu rancher by night and dental hygienist by day. "People drill them in half and put hinges on them to make jewelry boxes. They use broken shells to inlay jewelry, paint them, bead them and make dioramas out of them." The eggs have been used to create mosaics, Christmas ornaments, candleholders and the occasional handbag.

And they're not anywhere near as hard to find as one might think. In Maryland, there are about 40 emu ranches, and even a state organization, the Maryland Emu Association (Web site: www.md-emu-assn.org). According to the national association, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 U.S. ranches altogether, though the Internet is the one-stop shop for the eggs.

"Emus have been in America for a long time," says Margaret Pounder, executive director of the American Emu Association in Dallas, "but mostly as zoo stock. In 1986 and '87, a small breeder market developed -- and then it went crazy."

The craziness began in the early 1990s when some people, whom LeMaster calls "shady," saw there might be a get-rich-quick scheme in selling emus to prospective breeders by billing the bird as a rare and healthful alternative to beef.

"It was a speculator market when we first looked into it," says Hall, who with her husband started the Southern Cross Ranch six years ago. "The birds were going for $40,000 a pair."

By the time the craze leveled off in the mid-'90s, what was left were the farms devoted to raising the animals for their byproducts, not for breeding. Today a pair of prolific birds, which can weigh up to 150 pounds each and lay up to 50 eggs per year, sells for $1,500. To survive, emu ranchers have found creative ways to market just about every part of the 5- to 6-foot-tall ostrich relative.

The long feathers are used in floral design and fishing lures. The hide is made into a supple leather for clothing and handbags. The oil the animal produces on its back is used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes (Hall has a side emu-oil business called "Outback Medic Survival Gear").

Emu claws can be made into jewelry, and the meat is sold as a low-fat, low-cholesterol red meat recommended by the American Heart Association. Even broken shells are recycled by selling them to artists and craft makers.

"Seventy percent of the business is in the oil," says Pounder, "20 percent meat and the rest falls into the 10 percent."

That's where the Easter egg idea comes in.

If you do want emu eggs for your holiday table or basket, opting for those already "blown" (a process by which non-producing eggs are emptied) and sterilized, which go for $5 to $10 apiece, might be the best bet.

Pounder says people with "really big recipes" do cook the eggs, scramble them or use them in baking. But if you're thinking about boiling them as you would a normal Easter egg, you might think again.

To hard-boil an emu egg, she says, takes about an hour and a half.

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