BIXLER VALLEY - Oh, those wacky ostriches.

They look at you with big, brown eyes, their small heads bobbing on long, skinny necks, their beaks lending a permanently goofy expression.

The big birds that can't fly are fond of eating weeds and kernels of corn and taking a shower under a hose.

But will they like Carroll County?

Will the birds most common to the wilds of South Africa take to a place populated by cattle, horses and suburbanites?

They just might, seeing as how they really don't stick their heads in the sand so they don't need all that sand anyway.

Jack Untener, who brought four ostriches from Oklahoma to his land on Bixler Church Road outside Westminster about a month ago, is hoping the ostrich will be the farm animal of the future.

The birds produce many offspring every year, don't eat much and are covered with profit -- feathers.

And they're fun to play with.

Untener built pens for the birds, gave them funny names and set about the business of raising the two-toed birds.

"They're my babies," he said, feeding them from his hand. "I love them dearly. I play with them."

Because his babies can run up to 45 mph and kill a person with a well-placed kick, the director of the Carroll County Humane Society is worried.

Nicky Ratliff says Ronnie and Nancy, Untener's blue-necked ostriches, and Al and Peggy Bundy, his red-necked pair, should be kept inside 6-foot-high fences and behind double gates.

She's asked the county to write guidelines for raising ostriches and other "exotic" animals. Laurell E. Taylor, an assistant county attorney, is drawing up a law with help from a University of Georgia study on the proper housing of such animals.

Untener said Ratliff is using "scare tactics." Ostriches are usually docile and curious, he said. His are in two 30-by-150-foot pens made of chain-link fencing. He won't say exactly how high the fences are, but the birds, which are 7 to 8 feet tall, can stretch their heads over the top.

Susan Adkins, executive director of the American Ostrich Association, said most ostrich pens are as tall as the birds' bodies -- 5 feet.

If an ostrich escaped, it probably would run from anyone who approached it, she said. In the wild, ostriches are not predators; they're preyed upon, she said.

"If you chased it, it would run and get stuck in the corner of the pen because it's such a stupid bird," Adkins said.

Thomas P. Ryan, a veterinarian in Baltimore County who has treated Untener's birds, said ostriches usually are docile, but can inflict harm because of their size.

Untener's birds weigh from 280 pounds to almost 400 pounds.

Ryan said, "They're not any more dangerous than a bull in a field."

Untener, 51, a businessman and weekend square-dancer, is the only ostrich farmer in Maryland, as far as the Maryland Farm Bureau and the ostrich association, based in Forth Worth, Texas, can tell.

He likes the pioneering role.

"I want to build up a Maryland line. We have Maryland racehorses, why not have Maryland ostriches?"

The industry has been growing in the United States, primarily in the West, in the last several years. Texas, Oklahoma and California are the top three breeding states, Adkins said.

The birds now are raised primarily for breeding, she said. In about five years, farmers will have enough to begin selling the hides, meat and feathers, she said. No one has a good count of ostriches in the United States, but there area at least 8,000, she said.

The market for ostrich producers here has been good since the United States stopped importing the products from South Africa several years ago because of political sanctions.

One ostrich hide can make two or three pairs of boots, which sell for about $500 a pair, industry numbers show. The red meat, low in fat and cholesterol, is sold in gourmet restaurants for $10 a pound. An average ostrich has $225 worth of feathers, which can be clipped twice a year.

Untener said he doesn't plan to sell his ostriches' products; he simply wants to breed the birds.

He won't say how much he invested in the project, but industry numbers say if a breeder invests $32,000 to buy two adolescent pairs, he can expect to make a profit of about $87,000 after two years and $120,000 each year after that.

Ostrich chicks sell for $6,000 a pair.

Untener and his wife, Brenda, also own land in North Carolina and may start another ostrich farm there if this one takes off, he said.

He eventually hopes to have 100 birds on his land here, which he's dubbed the J.B. Ostrich Ranch.

His birds should be ready to mate next spring, he said. The females can lay eggs from March through October.

Ronnie and Nancy and Peggy and Al are registered with the ostrich association and have had a microchip implanted for identification if they ever are lost or stolen, Untener said.

"It's just like getting into registered cattle," he said, except the birds are more playful.

Untener said he was working on a water trough in one of the pens recently when Ronnie sneaked up behind him, took his hat in his beak and ran. Untener said he told the bird to bring it back, and it did, but it dropped it in the water.

He then said, "That wasn't nice," and the bird picked the hat up and dropped it on the ground.

"It was luck, pure luck," Untener said, laughing.

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