Sunday, October 24, 2010

How to Rob an Ostrich Nest

the ugly, yet lovable emu

When I was still in my first couple of years of veterinary school, I was lucky enough to pick up the strangest part-time job I have ever had. At the time, Auburn had a research unit for flightless birds to explore their commercial potential. The three types of flightless birds that they did the majority of the work with were ostriches, emus, and rheas. My co-workers and I were responsible for feeding the birds and collecting eggs to hatch out for a research project that was underway.

If you’ve never seen them before, emus are gentle and curious, a little skittish, and not terribly intelligent. I spent more time with these guys than any of the others, and thought that they were pretty neat. A couple of them were close to 6 feet tall. It’s odd to be around a bird that can look you in the eye while standing on flat ground. Their eggs are a deep jade green and weigh about a pound each.  They lay the eggs directly on the ground with no nest to speak of.  They will frequently try to hide their eggs by draping a strand or two of grass over the egg...  not much cover for an egg the size of a football. As I said earlier, they are not too bright.  The chicks are striped like zebras when they are first hatched.  Emus are fast; much faster than a vet student.  I once clocked an emu at 25 miles per hour when it was running beside my car, but I’m told that they can run faster. They can also jump over six feet into the air. I'm 6 foot 2, and I had one jump over my head one day when I was trying to catch it to draw blood.  I really liked working with these guys.

Ostriches and rheas are wired differently. 

Rheas are, essentially, miniature ostriches. They’re a little shorter and stockier than an emu. They also have the attitude of a rabid mongoose.  My understanding is that they are still captured for meat today in South America. Originally, this was done with bolas- a thrown device made out of ropes with two stones on either end intended to wrap around legs and trip the victim. It seems to me that you'd have to get pretty close to them to do that. As far as I’m concerned, if that was the only option to catch them, I’d consider moving out of rhea country or becoming a vegetarian.

Rhea males are particularly nasty.  At Auburn, there was one that would charge you like a bull every time you came into the rhea enclosure during breeding season. At feeding time, standard procedure was to take two buckets into the enclosure.  One bucket was full of feed for the more peaceable denizens of the pasture, and the other bucket was for him to plow into repeatedly when he came after you.  He would spread his wings out to the side (he looked about three times bigger when he did this), slam into the bucket, bounce off, and come back for more.  He was relentless.  He was also more intelligent than the average emu, which made him a little more unpredictable.

I wasn’t there for this incident, but I wish I had been. This is the way it was told to me:

 One of my classmates was trying to fix a malfunctioning watering trough in the rhea enclosure one night when she was ambushed by the dominant male rhea. She didn’t have time to get a bucket from the gate area to distract him before he would have plowed into her. Time for Plan B.
 She whipped out her keychain mace and blasted him at a range of about 2 feet (just in time to avoid being hurt- this guy was bad news). The rhea ran away and apparently never bothered her again while she was taking care of things.  Can’t say that I blame him.

Rheas can be scary enough, but the most serious of the challengers in the flightless bird gladiatorial arena was the ostrich.

The professors in charge of this unit gave a pretty direct safety lecture. It went like this: “Ostriches are not smart. But they kill lions in Africa, so don’t be taking any chances with them.” We didn’t have to be told twice.

I clocked an ostrich with my car just for fun, too. The enclosure that the ostriches were in had an eight foot fence and was pretty long. I saw the male at one end of it one day, and before he ran out of room running alongside my Accord, he had reached about 30 mph. With a little more space, I bet he could have topped 35 mph. When you think about it, something that has 4 inch talons, can run 30 miles per hour, weighs 250 lbs, and believes that the sun goes down and comes back up every time it blinks is not something you want to be stealing eggs from, but that was our job.

This was the way egg gathering worked: First, one person annoyed the ostriches into coming after them on the outside of the fence. While the birds attacked the fence trying to get to the decoy, another person quietly slipped into the enclosure and snagged the ostrich eggs. The eggs weighed about 3 pounds or so.  Then the egg thief would tuck it under their arm like a running back runs with a football and sprint to get out the gate before the ostriches noticed them.  Here’s a play-by-play from when of one of my buddies and I retrieved eggs one day. In the interest of anonymity, we’ll call this buddy Brian.

We checked the ostrich enclosure that afternoon, and found that the hen was nesting. Ostriches don’t nest the way other birds do- it’s more like they dig a shallow hole in the ground and sit on it.  Sizing up the situation, Brian and I got together and worked up a plan. I was to be the equivalent of a rodeo clown and get the attention of the adults, and he was going to sneak in and get the eggs.  Brian hid around a corner, and I started a commotion, jumping up and down and hooting just outside the fence. The male ostrich came at the fence immediately and started to kick at it… Hard.  One of the disconcerting things is that the metal fence flexed every time they kicked it, so it looked like the wire of the fence was getting stretched and bowed with each impact.  It took another 30 or 45 seconds for the female to get off the nest and come toward me.  When she stood up, I saw that she was indeed on an egg.

“Go ahead, Brian! There’s one egg!” I yelled.  Brian slipped into the enclosure behind the birds and moved as fast as he could without making noise.  He snagged the egg and tucked the trophy under his arm.  Just as he took his second step back away from the nest, the female heard him, turned away from the commotion I was making, and locked in on him.  I yelled a warning to Brian.  He picked up speed. The thought of an angry 250 lb. bird bearing down on you from behind will have this effect.  He was up to a full sprint in an instant. I wish I could have driven my car beside Brian to see how fast HE was going.

At this point, I was still trying to keep the attention of the male, who had just turned to see where the hen had gone.  But my antics were not enough... Now, both of the ostriches were onto Brian.  The big male, using all the reasoning power available to him,  decided to ignore me and go after the egg thief.  Brian’s burst of speed got him back to the gate.  He sped through and whirled around to slam the gate shut with a couple of yards to spare between him and the female, who had been gaining ground on him, with the male just behind.  To say that I was impressed by his display of athleticism would be an understatement. The man was inspired.

So….Anybody want to be an ostrich farmer?


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Current Events & Weird Stuff

Current events- An odd couple of weeks: 
Seeing things that are a little outside the norm keeps life interesting around the clinic. This week has been a little more unusual than most… so far, here are the oddballs for the first part of October: 
1.     A dog that had been in a fight with a beaver. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen something like that. Apparently, a beaver is a worthy adversary. If you’re thinking about picking a fight with a beaver…. You may want to think again. This dog was chewed up from one end to the other, but was doing well at home as of this morning. 
2.     A cat that came in for sneezing. It turned out to have a 4.5 inch long piece of grass stuck in its nose- we took a picture on top of a piece of 4X4 gauze. Here it is:  
This supposedly happens a lot, but I’ve only seen it a few times.  It had about ¼ inch of the blade sticking out of one nostril, which means that the other 4.25 inches was up the nostril, into the sinuses. It either wrapped around in there, or was actually going down the back of the throat. 
3.     Another C-section on a Sunday afternoon- smaller litter this time.  We called in five people from the clinic crew to be sure that there were enough folks on hand for this one. You never know how many puppies you may find once you get going.  For this c-section, we delivered 6 puppies (5 girls, 1 boy); all were doing well when we called the owners to check in on them the next day.  The puppies have already been named: Betty, Savannah, Wilma, Pebbles, Bubbles, and Harley.  You can see a picture of them at
4.     Dr. Fraser diagnosed a cat with a pair of bladder stones that looked like two halves of a quail egg when she pulled it out during surgery. I’ve been collecting bladder stones since I was a kid working in a clinic, so I was pretty fired up about this one. I’ve got some pretty neat stones. It may be the only collection of its kind in St. Clair County.  My favorite one is about the size of a grade-A large egg that I pulled out of a miniature Schnauzer. 
5.     Dr. Compton has been working with a 19 lb. dog that has a respiratory infection caused by a particularly nasty bacteria (it’s a multidrug-resistant strain of Pseudomonas). His big symptom has been a periodic retch/wheeze that echoes off the walls. The owners are dedicated and have come a long way with him. The dog’s name is Jack, but the owners have renamed it “Hack”. 
I’ve got my topic for the next blog ready to go- “How to Rob an Ostrich Nest”.  It’s another adventure from my time in vet school. I should have it finished by this weekend.