Ostriches in California

Ostriches are worlds the largest non-flying bird and lay the largest eggs.  A female ostrich can lay up to twelve eggs that can each weigh up to 40 to 70 ounces each. When ostriches reached their peak popularity in the early 1900’s, ostrich eggs were sold alongside their feathers in stores as a novelty.

Portrait of a young woman

Image: Portrait of a young woman, History San Jose Photographic Collection, History San Jose.

Ostrich feathers have been in the fashion industry for centuries. African and European countries have used ostrich feathers in apparel and in jewelry. In the early 1900’s there were only 3 or 4 ostrich farms known in the United States. The biggest Ostrich farm in the U.S. in 1904 was in Arizona, with over 1,200 ostriches.

Cawston Ostrich Farm Postcard: Anna Held Riding an Ostrich

Image: Cawston Ostrich Farm Postcard: Anna Held Riding an Ostrich, South Pasadena Local History Images Collection, South Pasadena Public Library.

In 1896 the first Ostrich farm in California was opened in 1896 by Edwin Cawston. Cawston owned the largest Ostrich farm in California and it is also one of the most well-known to date. Cawston’s original flock of fifty ostriches was imported from southern Africa. Attracting people from all over the country, the southern Pasadena farm had various sorts of entertainment. Tourists could have their picture taken riding an ostrich; they could view the plucking of the ostriches, see the ostrich chicks and of course purchase their very own ostrich plume from their shop.

Hatching baby ostriches

Image: Hatching baby ostriches, John C. Gordon Photographic Collection, SJSU

In 1904, Colwell P. Leitch brought twenty four South African Ostriches to a farm just off King Road and Alum Rock Avenue in San José. These ostriches would not only be a tourist attraction for the city of San José but would also bring big business. According to an article in the Trailblazer magazine (May 1986), the San José Ostriches were plucked every eight months. The best plumes were from the ostriches that were approximately one year old. When it came time to pluck the plumes of an ostrich, the farm saw a rise in attendance. People from all around wanted to see how the farmers were able to get the plumes without being attacked.

Ostrich farm on Alum Rock Ave.

Image: Ostrich farm on Alum Rock Ave., History San Jose Photographic Collection, History San Jose.

Ostriches stand up to be eight feet tall and can weigh up to four hundred pounds. When threatened, ostriches snap their beak and kick. Ostriches have long muscular legs with two sharp toes, not an animal you would want to kick you.

Cawston Ostrich Farm Postcard: Plucking the Plumes

Image: Cawston Ostrich Farm Postcard: “Plucking the Plumes”, South Pasadena Local History Images Collection, South Pasadena Public Library.

Farmers would take a sack and put it over the ostriches head, making the ostrich compliant. The farmer would then begin plucking the exotic plumes from the animal procuring up to ten. These plumes could be sold up to $40 each. The ostrich farm of San José began with a shop adjacent to their farm but after a few prosperous years, the shop moved to the Hotel St. James. This shop was known as the San José Ostrich company and shoppers could purchase a variety of dyed plumes, boas and novelty items.

Cawston Ostrich Farm Sales Room Interior

Image: Cawston Ostrich Farm Sales Room Interior, South Pasadena Local History Images Collection, South Pasadena Public Library.

Many stories can be found in the San José Public Library California Room about the Ostriches of San José. These stories include a photographer, Mr. Munson who got into the pen of an ostrich and narrowly escaped from getting kicked in the face. One of the most talked about stories from the San José ostrich farm was that of two ostrich males fighting during mating season. During breeding season, male ostriches are known to become aggressive and territorial. Male ostriches display their feathers and wings as they patrol their territory. Male ostriches will chase away other ostriches while on their territory walk and yell out a loud call. An ostrich named Frank Heney fought a fellow ostrich for getting too close to his two female mates. This personified story of the territorial ostriches made San José newspaper headlines in 1907.

Four Ostrich

Image: Four Ostrich, California History Section Picture Catalog, California State Library.

The Ostrich farm directors voted in a meeting in 1909 to move the second largest ostrich farm in California of thirty four birds and all of their eggs to Sacramento city. Surprisingly, the city of San José and its residents were understanding as to why the Ostrich farm chose to leave. Ostrich fashion declined rapidly after 1913 and appeared rarely in the industry after, thus leading to many ostrich farms to close.

Further Reading in the California Room:

  • Warfare at the Ostrich Farm by Carrie Nation & Nellie Bly, Trailblazer, February 1987 pg. 6-7
  • San Jose's Remarkable Ostrich Farm by Henry Calloway, Trailblazer, May 1986 pg. 7-9

Comments

What a fascinating topic. Thank you for writing about it!

Thank you, Megan!

I never knew Ostriches were such a trendy fashion statement, or terrifyingly territorial! You learn something new everyday. Great work!

Thank you, Rico!

My family and I were in the ostrich business back in the early to middle 90's. I worked for Pacesetter Ostrich Farm. They had a farm in Arizona and one in La. right next to Lake Pounchatrain across the lake from N.Orleans.The job took me to China, Mexico back and forth across across the US. The trip to China was the most interesting. We flew 130 birds not chicks to Wuhan China and they all survived.they were all alive when I left. The Chinese culture was interesting but after 60 days I was ready to come home. The pictures on here look familar. There is a island called Jekyll where in the 2nd wwwar 1\5 of the worlds wealth was there and they raised them. I worked with John Wade DVM ,Bobbie Clemmons his son Larry Clemmons. Many good memories . Scott Daniel

Thanks for adding some great info on the history of the Ostrich industry, Scott! Glad to hear all the ostriches made it on that long trek!

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