Trainer Joe Hedrick holds a pen out. His ostrich draws back. No autographs, please. "They like shiny things," says Hedrick. But the pen doesn’t do it today.
With tennisball heads and badly lipsticked beaks, the tall birds look down upon the media as if to say, "You’re not corn."
Noah’s ark seems to have run aground at Tumbleweed Park in Chandler: A zebra grazes between Shetland ponies. Groomed alpacas prance like giant show poodles. A large camel named Amy takes a shine to us until a larger male camel intervenes with a frightening, malt-liquor-like belch.
But the stars of the show pace apart on pterodactyl drumsticks with tiny heads bobbing in time. This weekend, Chandler celebrates a bird that is part history, part mystery: Are they proud or enigmatic? Cranky or skittish?
Or is Jim Henson staring back at us through a periscope?
WARM? FUZZY? NO.
The East Valley takes a page from its hose-necked, claw-footed past this weekend, as the 17th annual Chandler Ostrich Festival turns the city into a free-wheeling smorgasbord of parades, musical acts, carnival rides, arts, crafts, exotic foods and bird races. An estimated 100,000 people will attend the festivities, honoring the biggest bird that never booked a "Sesame Street."
Why honor the ostrich? Perhaps they have lovely personalities. "Well, they have personality," Hedrick says. In fact, they all have . . . the same personality. "We give them show names: Henhouse Harry, Crazy Legs, like that." But they don’t come running? "No. And they look so much alike, we keep numbered bands on their ankles to tell them apart," he says.
They do have memorable faces. Want to see a good imitation? Tell any newcomer Chandler dedicates a festival to ostriches. Their eyes will bulge, their lips will purse and they’ll say what everyone does.
"Oh, everybody asks, ‘Why?’ " says Becky Jackson. The president of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce explains that ostriches knew some important people back in the day: City founder A.J. Chandler ran ostrich farms in the early 1900s and sold the feathers back East for decorative pins and ladies hats.
Ostriches — or parts of them, anyway — were a high fashion accessory up through the Jazz Age, and ostrich ranches still dot the state. But the festival recalls their heyday and peaks with the ostrich races, where gawky speed demons tear up the track so quickly you almost don’t notice how weird it looks.
After several minutes of study from several different angles, the ostriches have concluded the reporters in their pen are definitely not corn. That’s when the pecking begins.
"They don’t bite," says Hedrick. "They have no teeth. But they’ll go after your glasses, cap or any jewelry you have on."
They’re also very strong. If you block an ostrich’s path to someone with shinier stuff, or corn, they can deliver a hockey-caliber body check. "They’re very curious creatures," Hedrick says. "They’re not dumb — that’s a myth. They have a capacity to learn. They’re not as teachable as camels, maybe. But they are trainable."
If having an ostrich festival seems strange, try having one without ostriches. That’s what happened in 2003, when Newcastle disease and a statewide bird quarantine begat the Chandler Awkward Pause Festival. "It’s true; that year we were ostrich-less," says Jackson. But a menagerie of pinch-hitting animals kept things going.
Hedrick "brought in Brahman bulls and giraffes and camels that year," she says. "But it was a big success. We got more publicity for not having ostriches." That menagerie will return for this year’s festival. Because ostriches don’t mind sharing the spotlight (even though it’s shiny).
Once a feed bucket appears, Hedrick is suddenly Mr. Right. Nine ostrich heads float above him, spearing his hand with a vigor that raises a cloud of dried corn and makes you re-count Hedrick’s fingers.
"We’re kind of like horse whisperers — we learn to read them," he says. "I taught school for nine years. Every child in the class is different."
Why celebrate ostriches? Because, like many of life’s gangly, awkward, taciturn creatures, they’re family. We didn’t pick them. (Lord knows we didn’t design them.) But as part of our heritage, they deserve our thanks.
Also, it’s a good excuse for a party. Ostrich Festival schedule of events
4 p.m.: Carnival rides open 4 to 6 p.m. on the community stage: Local entertainment 5 p.m.: Ostrich and exotic animal races 5 p.m. to midnight at the Music Coop: Entertainment by the Honey Bear Dancers, Doo Wah Riders, Ethyl and the Regulars, Sixties Rock Reunion and Jeff Martin the magician 8 p.m. on the main stage: The Guess Who
10 a.m.: Ostrich Festival Parade; carnival opens 11 a.m. to midnight at the Music Coop: Entertainment by the Honey Bear Dancers, Doo Wah Riders, Ethyl and the Regulars, Mogollon and Jeff Martin the Magician 1 to 6 p.m. on the community stage: Local entertainment 2 and 5 p.m.: Ostrich and exotic animal races 8 p.m. on the main stage: Foreigner
Noon: Carnival rides open 1 to 6 p.m. on the community stage: Local entertainment 1 p.m. to midnight at the Music Coop: Entertainment by the Honey Bear Dancers, Ethyl and the Regulars, Sun Barrio Latina Band and Jeff Martin the Magician 2 and 5 p.m.: Ostrich and exotic animal races 3 p.m. on the main stage: Ruben Ramos 5 p.m. on the main stage: Freddy Fender 7 p.m. on the main stage: Emilio Test your ostrich knowledge
Today, Chandler christens its 17th annual Ostrich Festival.
Let us use the occasion to strip back the veil of ostrich-related ignorance with this quiz.
1. Ostriches grow to be:
a) 6 feet tall b) 7 feet tall c) 7 1 /2 to 8 feet tall d) Lawyers mostly, though some prefer the arts
2. Ostriches can reach speeds of:
a) 30 to 35 miles an hour b) 50 to 55 miles an hour c) 75 miles an hour
3. The most dangerous part of an ostrich is:
a) Its legs b) Its beak c) Its cruel, scathing sarcasm
4. To be an ostrich rider, you must:
a) Be 150 pounds or less b) Be shorter than 5 feet 6 inches c) Lie to women who ask what you do for a living d) Have seen "Whale Rider," then come to terms with disappointment
5. Ostriches played an important role in Chandler’s history because:
a) Many residents sustained themselves on ostrich meat during the Depression b) Dr. A.J. Chandler once raised ostriches c) Ostriches were used in Chandler’s Giant Chicken Genetics Lab during the war d) What happens in Chandler, stays in Chandler
6. Ostriches stick their heads in the sand.
a) True b) False c) False, but they are notoriously closed-minded to new ideas
7. Ostriches reach maturity at 2 years and can live to:
a) 30 to 40 years b) 50 to 60 years c) 60 to 70 years
8. An ostrich’s diet consists of:
a) Grain in captivity, grass in the wild, rodents in a pinch b) Grass in captivity, leaves in the wild, berries in a pinch c) Wild grasses, hold the berries and rodents
9. Male ostriches:
a) Have luminous pin feathers b) Sit the nest at night c) Are the better-looking ones
10. Ostriches are raised:
a) For their feathers b) For their feathers or their meat c) With simple values and a dream
1. c; 2. a; 3. a; 4. a; 5. b; 6. b; 7. c; 8. a; 9. b; 10. b