I arrived at the O.K. Corral Ostrich Farm at ten o'clock on a hot June morning. I was researching a novel, and the proprietor, Doug Osborne, had agreed to give me a tour of the facilities. I was trying to learn a little about the birds and their care. What I found, eight miles west of Victorville on historic Route 66, on this forty-acre plot of land, was a world of feathered intrigue. (Photo, left: a colorful male ostrich.)
Doug and I began our tour by strolling down a dirt path adjacent to a fenced enclosure of what looked like baby ostriches. I had read that ostriches grow a foot a month in their first year of life, and was intrigued by anything that could increase in size so rapidly. Doug explained that in fact these birds were not baby ostriches, but emus. The two species require very similar care, so raising them side by side helps Doug to diversify his endeavor. I considered asking Doug about the baby ostriches, but remind myself to be patient and let him finish his tour before asking questions.
After passing the relatively small emu enclosure we came to the ostrich corral. As we walked along the birds on the other side of the fence followed us in a growing cluster of bobbing heads and large round eyes. I found them incredibly charming. Their legs were long and graceful, and though I had read that their brains are about the size of their eyeballs, they appeared inquisitive, even thoughtful.
The temperature climbed as we walked along. Doug and I were both sweating, but he explained that the birds do quite well in this climate - they are originally from Africa and need very little water. Doug has learned a lot about these birds since he got into the ostrich business 19 years ago. He started with just four birds, two breeding pairs, and grew the enterprise slowly. With pride he explained that he now has over three hundred ostriches. Then he stopped suddenly to examine a footprint in the sand.
Doug placed his boot next to the print. He told me that he and his one employee have the same size feet. This sneaker-sized hole in the earth was decidedly smaller. Then he looked up and pointed to where the fence post was slightly askew, the wire frame bent. It was clear to see that someone had climbed into the corral. While hopping into an enclosed space with a herd of three hundred pound ostriches seems like a pretty risky endeavor, Doug explained that a lot of families in the area are struggling financially, and football-sized ostrich eggs can feed a large family a couple times over. This wasn't the first time they had seen signs of theft. He shook his head and we walked on. The dusty, dry sage scrub reached out in every direction, and the birds continued to follow us as we went. (Photo, left: huge ostrich eggs.)
We were only a couple hundred feet further down the fence when Doug stopped again. He reached down to pick up the remnants of a latex glove. It looked like trash to me and I wouldn't have thought twice about it, but he handled it carefully, cursing a little under his breath. He told me then that someone had been poisoning his birds. Three birds in the course of a week, he said, just sat down and never got up again. Considering that all of his birds fall far short of their expected 100 year life span, he had the third bird autopsied. He learned that someone had mixed up poisoned cornballs and fed them to the birds in the middle of the night. Though the latex broke down quickly in the desert sun he hoped to get a print off the inside that glove. He said he doubted it would do any good, but that he had to try. Though he could explain the poaching of a few eggs to feed a family, the killing of these peaceful creatures seemed cruel and bizarre.
Once we circled the corral, we headed for the barn. Ostriches lay a lot of eggs, but they are clumsy and tend to step on the nests. In order to maximize the efficiency of the farm, Doug has an incubator that holds the eggs until they are hatched (about 42 days). Then the hatchlings are kept in the barn until they are a year old. This prevents them from being trampled or harassed by the much larger, adult birds.
I was excited. I had never seen a baby ostrich. The eggs are large, about the size of a football, but the birds that come out are tiny compared to the full-grown 300 pounds they will be within a year. I had imagined that they would be awkward and clumsy and painfully cute. I readied my camera, but when Doug opened the barn door the space was empty. Solemn, he explained that the trouble started three years ago when half of his birds were still born. Two years ago it was three quarters. This year he hasn't had a single live hatchling.
When he began losing his birds he did some investigating. He had the farm's water tested and found that the ground water contained 800 times the amount of arsenic allowed by federal guidelines. In addition to the poisoned cornballs, it turns out there is a much more pervasive poisoning taking place all around him.
Doug is being treated for arsenic poisoning, but there's not much he can do for the birds. He has filed suit against the Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority, but it is difficult to prove where water pollution starts, or say who is responsible. So far Doug has lost over 1200 hatchlings at a cost of about $1.2 million. Without new birds being born to replace those that go to slaughter, Doug is facing the end of life as he has lived it for the past 19 years.
It is precisely for this reason that anyone in the vicinity of Victorville should make the trip to the O.K. Corral for a visit, and do it soon. While I sincerely hope Doug will be raising his birds for decades to come, the outlook is not good. Between thefts, poisonings, and the toxic ground water, the odds are against him, and yet, even in the midst of everything that has befallen Doug, he remains a charming and amiable host. He welcomes tours of just about any size, and offers discounts to school groups.
For more information, please call (760) 964-4233 for tours. It is highly recommended that you bring a hat and water. Hopefully when you get to the part of the tour where he opens the barn door you'll be treated to the sight of gangly hatchlings, growing strong and healthy. If you are, please send us a photo.
Location: 8308 E Puritan St, Oro Grande, California. From downtown Los Angeles, take I-10 east, then I-15 north to Victorville. From Victorville, take historic Route 66 west for 8 miles. Total drive, 90 miles in 90 minutes, much longer during rush hour.
Editor's Note: Douglas Osborne, who dedicated himself to building one of the largest ostrich farms in the country, died on July 23, 2012 at Victor Valley Community Hospital. He was 67.
The cause was heart failure, according to his son, Douglas Osborne II. The owner of O.K. Corral Ostrich Farm in Oro Grande suffered a massive heart attack while working in his office and was taken to the hospital.
Osborne sold meat, eggs and jerky of the large flightless bird to wholesalers and high-end restaurants across the country. He and his ostriches appeared in the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs," a Jay Leno show and History Channel's "Modern Marvels."