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Officers Find Game's Afoot in Back Yard : Crime: Auto theft detectives admire the ostrich chicks they discover at a Sunland home. But they return after learning that the birds were stolen from a Canoga Park hatchery.


Face-to-beak with evidence of a fowl crime, the detectives sort of, well . . . had their heads in the sand.

But how were they to know the cute ostrich chicks they were admiring were the loot in another case?

The detectives had gone to the home of a Sunland man in the 10400 block of Penrose Avenue to cite him for operating a back-yard motorcycle dealership without a license and to impound 11 Harley Davidson cycles.

There they encountered the four 4 1/2-foot-high chicks.

"We patted them on the head and left, not thinking anything of them since we're auto theft detectives," said Los Angeles Police Detective Bob Graybill, who heads the San Fernando Valley's auto theft task force.

Acting on a tip, they were back Monday to arrest another man, Scott Daniel Mitchell, 29, also of Sunland, on suspicion of stealing seven chicks worth more than $50,000 from Multi Industries, a Canoga Park ostrich hatchery that police said had fired Mitchell the same day the birds were stolen.

Police recovered four of the birds Monday in the back yard of a La Crescenta man, who apparently paid Mitchell $2,500 for them, officers said.

"They're a little underweight and their feather condition is not the way it should be, but overall they seem to be OK," said Virginia Brauer, head of chick management for Multi Industries, which also operates an ostrich ranch in Santa Barbara where the birds were taken.

The case got even more cuckoo Tuesday when a Canoga Park man phoned police and reported that Mitchell had also sold him three ostriches for $1,000. Authorities arranged for Brauer to meet with the man today and retrieve the trio of 1 1/2-month-old chicks,

The hatchery reported the chicks missing July 7, the same day that Mitchell was fired on the grounds of failing to keep proper records on the birds, police and company executives said. A burglar cut a hole in the hatchery roof and removed the young birds from a quarantine area, Graybill said.

Mitchell confessed to stealing four of the chicks upon his arrest, Graybill said. He is being held on suspicion of grand theft and burglary, police said.

Long valued for their distinctively pockmarked leather--an adult skin can be worth $1,500--renewed interest in the powerful birds with the long necks and useless wings has been growing since the mid-1980s in conjunction with interest in the bird's low-cholesterol meat, Brauer said.

"The ostrich industry is building," said Brauer. "There seems to be a tremendous interest in the meat because they have a very lean red meat and because everybody has become so health conscious."

Indeed, ostrich chicks sell for about $16,000 a pair and when the birds reach maturity, they can garner as much as $50,000 a pair, Brauer said.

Brauer said her corporation purchases the eggs in Namibia for about $350 each and then hatches, breeds and sells the birds to corporations and private individuals interested in starting ostrich farms. Currently there are nearly 1,000 chicks ranging from 2 months to 7 1/2 months in age roaming a 350-acre farm in the Santa Ynez Valley, about 14 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

More than 13,000 ostrich eggs were imported to the United States last year from such faraway lands as Namibia, the Netherlands, Israel, Mexico, Portugal, France and Costa Rica, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture. About 5,200 of the eggs arrived in California, which is one of six states--including Texas, Michigan, New York, Illinois and Florida--designated to receive imported eggs for incubation.

Once in the United States, the eggs are monitored by USDA inspectors at privately owned commercial quarantine stations where they are incubated, hatched and kept in quarantine another 30 days, after which they are tested for Newcastle disease, which can devastate commercial poultry flocks because it halts egg production.

Last year a mere 14.2% of the live ostrich eggs imported and incubated were subsequently released as live birds, according to an agriculture department spokeswoman, who noted that ostriches and their eggs were banned in this country from 1989 to 1991 because authorities feared the spread of ticks and disease.

Dr. Gerald Kugel, an agriculture department veterinarian at the port of Los Angeles, said, "The survival rate of chicks who are hatched from quarantine is all over the board." Of key importance, said Kugel, is the experience and knowledge of the people handling the eggs.

Brauer estimated that there are 2,600 ostrich ranches nationwide, with most located in Oklahoma and Texas. She estimated that there are now about 50,000 ostriches in the United States and said the industry would like to see that figure jump to 500,000 within three to five years.

Ostrich Facts:

* Order: Struthioniformes , with several different species.

* Distinctive features: The largest living bird, it cannot fly but can run 40 to 45 m.p.h., taking eight- to 10-foot strides.

* Size: seven to eight feet as adults, 300 to 400 pounds.

* Habitat: dry, sandy parts of Africa.

* Life span: 50 to 70 years.

* Diet: mostly plant matter.

* Habits: lives in flocks of five to 50; fond of water, bathes whenever it can, is able to swim.

* Reproduction: Males, which have several mates, scrape a communal nest in the ground, where hens lay 15 to 60 shiny, ivory-colored, hard-shelled eggs weighing up to three pounds each. They take about 42 days to hatch, with females incubating them by day and the male by night.

* Growth rate: Chicks can keep up with adults after one month, and mature at two to three years.

* As food: A one-egg ostrich omelet equals about two dozen chicken eggs.

* Myth: Contrary to the widespread impression, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand when confronted by danger. They run away swiftly from predators, but if cornered or wounded, they will fight by kicking out with their strong legs.

Source: Encyclopedia Americana, Encyclopedia Britannica and Multi Industries, an ostrich ranch in Santa Barbara

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