It’s an intriguing sight to see a miffed male ostrich having a go at its keeper. A little scary, as well, to watch as the full-grown man scales a six-foot fence to escape the wrath of a flightless bird.
Though capable of killing a man with just one blow, the ostriches at the Livestock Research Station at Kattupakkam in Chennai aren’t quite as violent as they seem, assures Rajendran, their keeper for the past 11 years. They only attack when provoked or when we go in to get their eggs, he grins. He also brushes aside the common notion that ostriches bury their heads in the ground when scared. “I don’t know about birds (ostriches) elsewhere, but these Chennai ones go bang their heads against their cages when they’re scared or if the odd aeroplane passes by.”
The story of India’s first and only ostrich farm is a tale of great survival, not much unlike the birds’ tale. “The first few years we struggled to keep them alive as they tried to cope in our conditions,” recalls Dr Thyagarajan. “Now a little over a decade later we have managed to attain a near-zero mortality rate in our facility,” he adds proudly. Devised in 1998, after ostrich meat was identified as a potential poultry source, the project took off the ground in 2000 when the government passed a sanction to import of over 60 birds from Malaysia to start a research facility. “We expected some transit losses and then a few more while they began to cope here, but the numbers that arrived were far less than expected,” he says ruefully. In fact, just 28 birds remained stable as the facility took shape.
Only after 2004-05, did the returns start showing, says Dr Kumaraswamy. “They began adapting well to our conditions and the next step was to ensure the mortality began gradually decreasing.” However, the costs of running the research facility for ostriches were mounting. Thankfully though, the team has managed to find the ideal reproduction mechanism for these birds and the number of infant deaths and losses in the hatchery has diminished. “This year we are proud to say that 35 ostriches have been born here and we have a total of 95 birds now,” says Thyagarajan. Apparently there will be no looking back.
As we step into the well-secured ostrich facility, we are asked to sanitize our shoes by dipping them in disinfectant, “lest the birds catch diseases from us” smirks an accompanying vet. At first sight, the birds appear reticent and sluggish, walking around ‘coops’ larger than a block of flats each. Not for long, though. The minute Rajendran stirs them into action, the black-plumed male raises himself up to his full height of seven-and-a-half feet and charges toward the keeper, beak at the ready. “They can run at 70 kmph, so there’s no question of humans outrunning them. That would be fatal,” mentions Kumaraswamy casually. Lesson learnt: Do not try to outrun an angry ostrich on anything under 100 cc.
The birds are hatched in a specially modified incubator that we are shown, after which they are kept at an indoor facility for six weeks before they are taken to the farm. Sundaram, who manages the hatchery, demonstrates how the little ones flock to water and play in it to beat the heat — just like dogs, in his opinion. This farm has also supplied birds to zoos across the country in Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, Mumbai and many more.
Ostriches can give the average middleweight a run for their money, as they weigh in anywhere between 120-150 kg when fully grown. In theory, this would make them ideal birds for breeding for consumption, one might think. This brings us to the major problem that the director foresees. “Each bird requires a lot of space,” he emphasizes. “A coop holding two females and a hen, is usually 1,500 m sq. Which farmer can afford to spare that much space, even for increased returns?” This can prove a large hurdle, especially when compared with chickens, which require 1 sq foot or less. A NABARD estimate that only 35-40 kg of meat can be used from a bird, does not sound very promising either. But the director says each ostrich here can provides close to 75 kg of meat.
On the positive side, ostrich meat is apparently endowed with several Essential Fatty Acids that are common in humans. “Ostrich oil is exceptionally useful with inflammation and skin problems,” he reveals. And despite the meat being described as “tough” by a professor it has one of the lowest cholesterol counts among red meat. With international meat producers labeling ostrich one of the most “underutilised” sources, will it take off in India? “Unless there is private participation and large scale awareness, the possibility remains moot for now,” concludes Thyagarajan.
For now, the birds can just sit back, lay eggs, be studied and grow old gracefully. They live for 70 years, after all.

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