The following review appears in this month's Times Publications.
"Ostrich bite." *
Truth in advertising at its best. Among things that were bitten at Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch last weekend: My hand, my camera, my shirt, my hair, and my son.
We’re going back as soon as we can.
If you're not heading to Picacho Peak, you might not even slow down enough to see the farm, off Exit #219 on Interstate 10, but you should. Nestled at the base of historic Picacho Peak Mountain, it's the largest ostrich ranch in the country. Over a thousand black South African ostrich hens live at the ranch, laying eggs and roaming its 600 acres.
Visitors can buy ostrich eggs (fresh, hollow, or painted), ostrich jerky, ostrich feather dusters (the owners insist they're the only kind that pick up dust), several other products at the entrance gift shop. But the real draw is participation.
Entrance is $5 for “kids 6 to 106,” and this includes a huge cup of pellet feed for the ostriches; as well as deer, goats, and donkeys; which can also be hand fed. The fee also includes a cup of nectar, which visitors can feed to rainbow lorikeets in an enclosed forest.
The products offered were fine, but I don’t think my son, David, has ever bypassed a gift shop so quickly. This should be a compliment, though -- he simply couldn’t wait to get to the animals. As we parked, a pair of ostriches peered over the fence at us. He was hooked.
Owner Rooster Cogburn (his given name’s D.C. Cogburn, but he took on "Rooster" in Oklahoma), sensitive to the fact that most people aren’t used to birds topping out 350 to 400 pounds, provides three levels of ostrich feeding. To stay unpecked, you can pour feed into chutes through the fence, where the ostriches will come and eat, safely on their own side. If you're feeling brave, walk up a wooden ramp and place the food in pans. If you’re insane, or are my son (OK, or me), you go immediately for the “ultimate ostrich interaction,” and invite the ostriches to eat from your hand. David was up the ramp, hand outstretched, in about 30 seconds.
Here's the thing: Ostriches are huge. You think you realize that, but it's a whole other thing to stand beneath a herd (“flock” doesn’t cut it) of giant, panting birds. These modern-day dinosaurs have presence. They towered over us at seven or eight feet, their enormous clawed, two-toed feet kicked up dust, and they breathed heavily, beaks wide open, waiting for food. Occasionally they’d get impatient and launch their heads over the fence in search of stray food. Unwary photographers focusing in the distance, leaning against the fence, are also ripe for enthusiastic pecking (something I learned firsthand).
With hundreds of ostriches wandering around the enclosure, you’re ensured a stampede of panting visitors. The humans learn the drill too -- hold your hand flat, down low, raise it slowly, and don’t curl up a stray finger. No leaning against the fence. Start small if you’re nervous. Feed the birds through the chutes first, and work your way up.
All of this makes the experience sound harrowing, and it was. But mostly it was ridiculously fun. It’s like the animal-feeding equivalent of riding a roller coaster -- everyone approaches it with a sense of foreboding and false bravado, a few folks scream or laugh, and as everyone walks away laughing and bragging, several people get right back in line.
After the ostriches, we took our nectar cups to the Rainbow Lorikeet Forest. The lorikeets are Australian parrots, and are absurdly beautiful, hence their name. They’re loud, playful, and inquisitive. David and I made our way to the back of the 5,000 square-foot enclosure, opened our nectar cups, and held out our arms. We were swiftly covered in a cacophonous blur of green, blue, orange, and yellow, as the lorikeets perched on our arms and sipped the nectar with their specially adapted tongues.
Many travelers make the ranch a quick stop on their way to Phoenix or Tucson, but there is plenty to occupy visitors. After the lorikeets, we refilled our pellets and fed the fallow deer (soft, adorable, and gentle enough for toddlers), the donkeys (frisky, and there are usually babies), and goats (from our lips -- you've got to try it). The ranch even runs 40-minute monster truck tours through the ranch and desert on weekends, for an extra behind-the-scenes look.
So, yes. Ostrich bite. But don't let that scare you off.
*In the printed version, you'll notice it's been amended to "Ostriches bite," which is quite correct. In fact, my son and I immediately noticed the sign's wording, but were a little distracted by the ostriches, well, biting. I imagine if you're warning someone, efficiency is more important than grammar.