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Farming for Feathers
Farming for Feathers
By John P. Wilson
Las Cruces, NM
If it had been called “ranching,” there would be shelves of books about it. But because it was considered agricultural, ostrich farming is now nearly forgotten. We’re referring to the rosy prospects that Arizona farmers saw in raising ostriches, late in the 19th and early 20th centuries. New Mexicans stayed with more familiar crops, like green chile!
From the 1880s until 1914, the hats and feather boas work by stylish ladies everywhere included wing and tail feathers, or plumes, from ostriches of both sexes. South Africa was the principal supplier, with more than a half-million domesticated birds. Feather merchants there grew rich and became feather princes, who built – what else? – homes known as feather palaces. California raisers got into the business too, on a somewhat lesser scale.
Ostriches first came to Arizona in 1892. The climate there proved to be ideal, and around 1906 the growing of these exotic fowls expanded rapidly. By 1911 the Phoenix area and the Salt River Valley reportedly had more than 6,000 head. The stock of the largest raiser, the Pan‑American Ostrich Company, numbered at least 2,000. There were other large farms and even individual farmers kept from two to ten birds.
Because of its novelty, newspapers carried detailed reports on this new industry. Plumes were the principal product, and an elaborate terminology for these came into use. A lesser market existed for the chicks and eggs. No one suggested roasting or eating an ostrich, and the use of their skins as leather was rarely mentioned.
Agricultural writers stressed the economics of raising ostriches as compared with cattle. An ostrich might live to the age of eighty and produce plumage for fifty years. A bird was plucked (the feathers were actually cut) every eight months for a total of about $45 in feathers per year – the same value as a three-year-old steer. An ostrich of this age would be worth from $200 to $250, and especially fine breeding birds brought much more.
Any creature that weighed 300 to 400 pounds at maturity and had a brain the size of a golf ball was probably not the brightest animal in the farmyard, but it did have a sort of aggressive curiosity. One writer claimed “The ostrich is a very serious bird” and that “the ostrich’s stomach is like the hog’s.” He might better have said “voracious” or “piggish” as anyone who entered an enclosure risked having buttons, jewelry, and every bright object picked off their clothing and gulped down. An ostrich would eat anything it could swallow, including the staples, nails and wire ends left by fencing crews.
Every ostrich’s dream food was fresh, chopped alfalfa, six to eight pounds of it each day, although growers today apparently depend upon a blend of soybean meal, corn, and other prepared feed. On one occasion, a big male bird in Arizona followed his instincts when he found a corncrib filled with corn on the ear inside of his enclosure. This ostrich also discovered a small door left open, and he managed to maneuver himself into the crib.
Once inside, a belly-full was not enough. He gorged, cob and all, with the cobs going down lengthwise. When this glutton wanted to leave, he couldn’t bend his neck enough to get through the door! He tried every possible way but his neck simply wouldn’t bend, and he stormed around the crib furiously until men came running. They knocked slats from the sides to let him out.
The Arizona Agricultural Experiment Station only investigated ostriches in 1917, when eight birds remained on their farm. Fashions had changed, the Gibson girl was no more and the demand for ostrich plumes plummeted during World War I along with hopes for a continuation of the ostrich industry. The daughters of Edwardian ladies became the flappers of the 1920s. Only in 1986 did interest revive for a time, and one city in southern Arizona proudly sponsored an annual Ostrich Festival. But once again ostrich-raising has diminished to the rank of a might‑have‑been.
Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), May 7, Sept. 10, Oct. 12, 1911.
Annual Report of the Governor of Arizona for the Fiscal Year ended June 30, 1907, p. 508; 1910, p. 542; 1911, p. 325.
James M. Barney, “Ostrich Farming. Forgotten Industry of Salt River Valley.” The Sheriff, April-May 1955.
Frank D. Reeve, editor, “The Sheep Industry in Arizona, 1905-1906.” New Mexico Historical Review 39 (1964), pp. 72-74.
Arizona Land & People, March 1985.
Albuquerque Journal, May 17, 1988; Oct. 21, 1991.
Rob Nixon, Dream Birds. Picador (2000).
© John P. Wilson. All rights reserved.