My three published novels:Plus new short fiction available now on amazon kindle!

My three published novels:Plus new short fiction available now on amazon kindle!
My three hardcover novels are available now for your Amazon Kindle device. Also find additional ebooks of fiction, and a two-volume photo book of Cuba's Classic Cars. Click on the book covers above.

Monday, June 6, 2011


From Wigwag Magazine, September 1990:
Outside Wimberley, between Austin and San Antonio, Joel Parker is carry­ing a bag of prepared ostrich feed. His two adult birds each consume two pounds per day. That's in the neigh­borhood of $350 a year for each bird, a dollar or so maintenance for each pound of the bird's weight. Yes, adult ostriches weigh about three hundred and fifty pounds. Maybe more. They are seven feet tall—or eight feet, de­pending on their posture at the mo­ment.
"We had looked at this for at least a year or so before we got into it," Parker explains. "So we bought these two birds. The female laid seven eggs, then it started raining, and she quit. She hasn't started up again yet. It's kind of got me concerned. I've got four chicks from the seven eggs, a good success rate, but I could just as well have twenty-four chicks by now."
The chicks can sell for a thousand dollars or more apiece. The adults are in the five-figure range. Joel and Debo­rah Parker have had the birds a year now. Since the enterprise is a constant financial drain, on the side they con­tinue to sell electrical supplies whole­sale. Right now ostriches in Texas are a breeder's market. The birds are raised only to propagate the population. But the Texas Department of Agriculture is encouraging the industry by giving interest subsidies on loans taken out by alternative-crop farmers. An ostrich is the only bird with red meat, and no other red meat is lower in cholesterol and fat. In Europe, ostrich sells for ten and twelve dol­lars a pound. Eventually, if only two percent of the U.S. population be­comes interested in eating ostrich, all of those in the business of rais­ing the birds should do very well. But until ostriches are seen as a food source, their only use by humans will re­main decorative. The birds have fancy plumes, and their skin is valued for exotic cowboy boots. It was a pair of those boots which Deborah had given Joel that initiated the Park­ers' interest in ostriches. They wanted to know why the footwear was so ex­pensive. Now they know.
Parker is trying to encourage the female to return to production while she is still in season. (The length of the breeding season varies. In some birds, it is year round.) Some or all of the chicks will have to be sold in order to help with the finances. If conditions were perfect, the fe­male would lay an egg every other day.
"It takes about forty-two days for the egg to hatch, twice what it does for a chicken's," Parker says. "So the incubation period is more critical. That's twice the time for infection or bacteria to set in."
The four chicks are being pampered with a heat lamp and
a dehumidifier in Parker's garage. They are three weeks old and already larger than chickens. At one year, their gender.will become apparent. Females remain gray, males turn black and white.
  The chicks have begun to peck at each other, as the adults do. Parker has brought them some
 large marbles from the dime store, hop­ing the flashy col­ors will attract the little guys' at­tention. Ostriches are inquisitive animals, and the chicks go after the marbles almost immediately, pecking at the rolling glass like barnyard chickens after a bug.

ostrich chow

Ostriches are huge. Parker points out that they have only two toes. The feet resemble something between a pig's and a dinosaur's. The knees bend forward—not backward, like ours. Parker reaches over the top of the pen, where the female has met him at the fence, her beautifully lucid eyes larger than the chicks' shooter marbles. She has a tremendous field of vision, and is capable of looking straight at you or viewing you from the side. Long lashes sweep frequently across the surface of her eyes. Her entire head is slightly larger than a light bulb.
The bird goes for Parker's hand, and bites the ever-living hell out of one finger. The male is more cautious, but he bites as well, when he has the chance. Parker says that the male is the friend­lier of the two. A turkey is limping in the yard, and Parker admits that it was injured by the female. The turkey had gotten into the pen and was harassing the larger birds, flapping up in their faces. The female ostrich kicked the turkey thirty feet through the air, like a soccer ball.
"They can kill you," Parker says, squeezing the feeling back into his hand. "They can kick right through your abdomen."
     The male mates with the female up to ten times a day while she is in season. His long red neck becomes inflamed, and he does a dance to impress her. "All of our eggs have been fertile, so he's a strong, healthy bird," Parker says. Parker has put a dummy egg in the ostrich pen, hop­ing the female will get the message. It is a real egg, blown out and weighted with salt. It's about the size of a cantaloupe. The bird has nosed the egg around some, but nothing's come of it. 
     During the mating season, the birds are more aggressive 
than usual toward each other as well as toward Parker. Both are missing feath­ers. Parker is very careful when entering the pen. He throws some corn over the fence to distract them. Corn is a treat for them. They seem to prefer it to the processed pellets of ostrich chow. One day, the birds stripped the bark off the cedar trees in the pen and began eating it. The adult male once swallowed a baseball. Parker had to work the ball back up the throat after it became stuck in the base of the neck.
"Oklahoma is the biggest state that raises these birds," Parker says "They have more birds than anyplace else. And Texas is second largest. Yet Texas is supposedly the more perfect environment. It's not as cold. And it's not as cold as South Africa. People don't know that South Africa gets real cold."
    Parker had wanted to keep his operation as organic as possible, but he isn't taking any chances with the health of his birds. He puts medicine on the food for the chicks, and the adults' water is fortified with vitamins and electro­lytes. When the birds eat, you can see the path of the food going down their necks and around their sides to their backs. They can take Metamucil sprinkled on their food if they're im­pacted. Parker finds a great deal of helpful advice in The Ostrich News, to which he subscribes. But so far his ostriches have been remarkably healthy. Even the extreme cold of the past winter was agreeable to the birds. They remained outside in the open, loving it. "About the only thing that will kill these birds would be people shooting them, lightning, or if they get stressed out. They're real bad about stress."
What stresses an ostrich? Anything that disrupts its routine. A truck engine night make a bird run around its pen like crazy. It was probably stress that punted the turkey through the air. 
 One of Parker's chicks needed some therapy done on its leg, and as he and his wife were binding the baby in a towel and stocking, they thought it had died on them. It had only fainted. Stress. The Parkers' property is three and a half acres of the Hill Country. They hope no one builds a house next door while the birds are there. The activity might stress them to death.
   Joel and Deborah Parker have named their adult ostriches Zeus and Athena. It is not clear that the birds are capable of responding to their names. To maximize hatch­ing success, the Parkers use an in­cubator. The de­vice is as large as a refrigerator, with removable com­partments for the eggs. It is kept in the ga­rage, where a washer and dryer ought to go. The ma­chine rocks once an hour, in order to keep the yolk from ad­hering to the interior of the shell. The Parkers bought it secondhand, and it is not as large as they would like. They keep records of when the eggs are laid, how much they weighed, what kind of day it was. The weather was so wet when the chicks began to hatch that Parker helped them out of their shells. The couple are improvising and learning about os­triches as they raise them. The air sac within the shell, for example, should be placed upward in the incubator cham­ber. Otherwise, the chick might have the ostrich equivalent of a breech birth. Also, an ostrich chick must be taught to feed itself. By nature, the baby hasn't a clue. Until the age of about three, a female won't lay fertile eggs. You might as well serve a young bird's egg sunny-side up as put it in an incubator. Zeus and Athena are five years old. They have a life expectancy of sixty or more, and are capable of reproducing well into their forties and fifties.
Parker's veterinarian has suggested that the ostriches are pecking each other out of boredom. Parker has tied two shiny plates to lengths of rope. He wants to dangle them from tree limbs to distract the birds, like a bell in a parakeet's cage. He throws a fist of corn into a corner and lets himself into the pen. Soon he is in a cedar. Zeus and Athena have come to investigate. Nor­mally, he would carry a rake—his birds are afraid of the rake—but these days he does nothing to alarm them. Zeus's neck is red and inflamed, but he is not dancing. Athena catches Parker on the upper arm this time, again biting the ever-living hell out of him. A three-inch blood blister is the result. Back outside, Parker suggests the birds might be haywire for any number of reasons. Because of a drainage problem, he has reduced the size of the bird pen by half. And there is the weather. Maybe when the climate returns to normal and the ostriches pay attention to the pie plates hanging here and there, the birds will relax and be kinder to each other. Athena might then respond more fa­vorably to Zeus's fancy footwork.
Parker realizes he has lost his pack of cigarettes. They must have fallen out of his pocket while he was in the pen with Zeus and Athena. He has to go back in and locate the smokes. After the big male swallowed the baseball, any foreign object is seen as a threat to the health of a curious, extremely expen­sive farm animal. Parker spots the ciga­rettes near where he hung the second pie plate. He can reach the pack with a stick without having to bother the birds. He lingers by the pen. Athena is pecking at the shiny metal disk, a para­keet from hell. When a chicken stops laying, the solution is the chopping block and the frying pan. That's out of the question here.
Parker is optimistic. He dotes on his birds. He's certain that Athena will start laying eggs again any day now. He talks soothingly to her before leaving the area. "You're a good girl," he says. But the preposterous, magnificent ani­mal doesn't acknowledge him.
Michael Zagst


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