Ostriches rule the roost at Sherrills Ford ranch

Pat Roberts and Mike Todd invite you to camp on their ranch Saturday night beside what they call living, breathing dinosaurs.

The couple raise ostriches, birds whose Mesozoic ancestors lived tens of millions of years ago.

Birdbrain Ostrich Ranch, off Little Mountain Road, is on the second annual Charlotte Area Farm Tour. The tour will feature 27 area farms Saturday and next Sunday.

The self-guided tour includes fruit and vegetable growers, livestock producers and North Carolina's first certified organic dairy.

Many farms will offer fun activities such as hayrides and cooking demonstrations, but only Birdbrain can boast an ostrich barbecue dinner Saturday night, an ostrich egg breakfast Sunday morning and camping overnight near 39 ostriches big and small.

The ranch has an outdoor kitchen, a fire pit for bonfires, horseshoe pits and picnic tables. Oscar the Ostrich (Todd) will likely appear that night.

The couple have raised ostriches on half their 16 acres since they moved there in 1996. They send most of the birds to a processor in North Wilkesboro or Gibsonville when they're 9 to 16 months old.

They sell the free-range red meat at the Davidson Farmers Market, the Atherton Mill Farmers Market in Charlotte's South End and at their ranch, which is less than a quarter-mile through woods from Mountain Creek, part of Lake Norman.

Visitors can buy ostrich steaks, filets and tenderloins, blown or carved ostrich eggshells, ostrich feathers, homemade ostrich soaps, handcrafted ostrich leather for bike seats, and ostrich bones for dogs.

The bones are strong and don't splinter as chicken bones do, Todd said.

Ostriches live in social groups for protection against predators, and you don't want to mess with the rooster ostriches protecting their turf and hens.

One rooster ostrich challenged another one for supremacy at the ranch recently and didn't live to tell about it, the couple said. The other one kicked it with such force through their fences that it died within hours from internal injuries, Todd said.

When I visited the ranch for three hours last week, I was understandably cautious enough to keep 3 feet from the fences of the rooster ostriches, as these 7- to 8-foot-tall creatures can kick forward a distance of 2 feet when they feel threatened.

"I've seen them snap these 4-by-4's like toothpicks," Roberts said.

I felt more at ease visiting the pens of the tinier ostriches, the ones only days or weeks old.

The couple's favorite radio station, WRFX 99.7 FM, blares 24-7 from a radio in the pen of the younger ostriches to keep coyotes away, Todd said.

Those pens are where the young learn the importance of staying with the group, such as the 2-day-old chick that Roberts released into the pen for the first time on the day I visited.

The little ostrich insisted on darting to the other end of its fenced-in field because it hadn't yet learned to turn around.

Other ostriches tried to coax it back to the covered pen, but Roberts had to pick it up several times to return it. Otherwise, it would have been easy pickings for a wild bird of prey, she said.

Roberts and Todd said it's easy to lose track of time hanging out with the ostriches.

"Sometimes we don't get enough done because we're playing so much," Todd said. "It's the Nature Channel in your backyard."