The cleverest bird on two legs

No wonder investors were drawn to the ostrich. It's a remarkable success, says Nicholas Schoon
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The Independent Online
The ostrich is renowned for its stupidity, but it is the thousands of investors in the stricken Ostrich Farming Corporation who are feeling foolish this weekend. When they sent off their cheques for thousands of pounds to buy one of the birds their heads must surely have been buried somewhere in the sand. Surely "guaranteed" rates of return of at least 50 per cent from such an unlikely investment should have aroused suspicion.

This was not a biotechnology company about to reap huge returns from a major advance in genetics. Nor was it an emerging market fund, feeding off the prodigious growth of developing market economies in South-east Asia. This was an investment in a bird. And a bird which has a reputation for stupidity at that.

There were some warnings in the press: that an ostrich was not an investment covered by the usual compensation arrangements underwritten by law; that the OFC's managing director Brian Ketchell had had business failures earlier in his career. The corporation's offices on a wooded business park near Mansfield in Nottinghamshire are empty. The Department of Trade and Industry put the company into receivership last week. Now the Serious Fraud Office and two police forces are on the trail of its ostriches.

The firm's collapse has pricked the bubble of Britain's ostrich farming boom. Hardly any ostrich meat is sold or eaten in this country; there is not a single ostrich abattoir. But in the past few years, tens of thousands of pounds have poured into buying, keeping and breeding the birds, in the hope that one day there will be a market for their tasty red meat and soft leather hides.

Of course this is not the first time investors have been suckered into an investment of obvious ridiculousness. In the 17th century, the Dutch lost fortunes on a tulip investment bubble. There was more recently a fashion for investment in angora goats for their fine wool (how often do you see people wearing them?). Yet in the history of such exotic livestock investment opportunities none seems quite so fitting as the stupid ostrich.

But we should be wary of writing off the ostrich quite so confidently. For ostriches are not stupid, at least not for a bird. They have simply had some ridiculously bad press.

No ostrich has ever been documented as sticking its head in the sand to hide from a threat. The idea that they ever did probably arose from their habit of lying their long necks and head flat on the ground when sitting on the nest, the better to hide themselves from predators. Quite clever, really.

When a group of them is surprised they scatter at top speed in all directions. That makes them look silly, but it is a sensible strategy for confusing a serious predator such as a lion.

They abandon eggs in large numbers, pushing them out of their big earthen nests to form a ''doomed ring'' of unincubated ovoids. That appears deeply foolish.

But, as the ostrich expert Dr Brian Bertram explains, it turns out to be an exercise in ingenuity. Ostrich nests are a sort of collective. Dug out by the male, they are attended by one female who lays the bulk of the 5lb creamy white eggs over a few weeks. Other females, which may have no more space in their own nests, pop in to add eggs of their own without the resident mother complaining.

If more eggs are laid than she can cover with her wings and body (36 is not unusual) she begins to cast some out. To us, all the eggs look the same, but fieldwork by Dr Bertram and colleagues in East Africa has shown that the resident female almost never ejects any of her own. Clever of her, don't you think?

Captive ostriches are notorious for eating the inedible - nails, bits of glass and other sharp objects, which then do them great harm. But this seems slightly less stupid when you consider that, in the wild, they regularly swallow largish stones to help grind up vegetable food in their gizzards.

No, the case for the ostrich goes even further than this, if you take the broad, biological view. How did a bird that lost its ability to fly become an evolutionary success story, covering the arid and semi-arid regions of all Africa and spreading into Arabia? Imagine what would have happened to us if a vital function, such as the ability to walk, was taken away from us? Seen in that light the ostrich must be a remarkably clever bird to have survived, despite such disadvantage. It is a bird that can compete with mammals on their own terms and survive; no mean feat.

And do not underestimate the street-fighting instincts of a bird that has managed to prosper despite such deprivations. The ostrich may be a vegetarian by nature, but corner a 15-stone, 8ft tall adult and it can turn vicious. Each foot bears two toes that can rip a human body open; several people have been killed by them.

At the start of the Nineties only a few dozen ostriches were being raised in Britain but today there are 10,000 (so if they all get angry and out of control at the same time there could be a riot).

Indeed the farming of the ostrich may be the latest act in its defiance of evolutionary gravity. Wild ostrich populations have been hard hit by hunting and habitat destruction. They have become extinct in Saudi Arabia; the North African sub-species is endangered. So perhaps their move into farming is a shrewd one; in the next century their captive population will probably outnumber the wild one. Once again they seem set to beat the evolutionary odds which are stacked against them.

Even in captivity, in Britain at least, farmed ostriches have escaped battery farming. They are the only farm animal covered by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Anyone who keeps them has to have a licence granted annually by the local council, which sets conditions for how they are kept.

Three years ago Dr Bertram was commissioned by the RSPCA to draw up ostrich farming standards. He stipulated that they should have access to growing vegetation outdoors, and there should be no more than 15 birds per acre. Councils will not usually grant a licence unless these standards are met. Clever bird to have got such comfortable quarters.

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