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17 october 2013

The ostrich gained a permanent place among the world's valuable domesticated animals, says Edgar Williams, "in the 1970s when Texan cowboys decided that ostrich-skin boots were the ultimate in fashion" (120). I have to admit that I own one pair of ostrich boots. It's not the highest grade: they're dyed a deep black to hide imperfections, and I bought them off the rack somewhere on deep discount. But at some point in the past decade, they were racing around on a savannah somewhere, before they were sacrificed to my sense of style.

Wild ostriches still roam widely in Africa, if their numbers are nowhere near where they were two centuries ago. A mania for plumes led not so much to over-hunting, but to their wide domestication in the mid- and late nineteenth century. The collapse of the plume market send domestic populations spiralling downward, till boot production saved them. There are now large flocks of ostriches as livestock, even as the use of land for grazing restricts the range of the wild ostrich. This probably suits ostriches just fine. They are obstinate survivors, adapting to a wide range of climate and moisture conditions.

The leather in my boots may well be imported from South Africa, the primary ostrich-breeding nation. But it might be from Texas: ostrich ranches are a common-enough sight on Texas highways. Ostriches find drought, heat, and scrub hospitable enough, which is good if they want to live in Texas.

Williams presents a creature with a small brain, large eyes, and a fantastic if functional body. Faster than horses, ostriches are so easy to hunt (they run in circles when pursued) that big-game hunters eschewed them in favor of more challenging prey. Ostrich includes no recipes, but notes that ostrich meat is marketed more and more. It's lean, gamy, and nutritious. Unfortunately, it doesn't sell like beef or even like bison. The one time I bought ostrich steaks at my local supermarket, I got them home and out of their shrinkwrap to find they'd literally been stinking on ice. Some genius needs to sell the public on KFO if the ostrich market is ever to take the next quantum leap forward.

There are smaller markets for ostrich-oil soap and cosmetics. And there's a niche market for ostrich-egg artifacts, one that has been in existence for tens of thousands of years. Some of the oldest known jewelry and decoration is made of ostrich eggshell. It is easily marked yet practically indestructible. Long before humans had much use for ostriches even as food, they ate eggs and saved the shells as proto-pottery. Williams does note that an ostrich omelet is the equivalent of one made with two dozen chicken eggs. Mmmn, omelet.

Williams, Edgar. Ostrich. London: Reaktion, 2013.