REGARD the ostrich, one of nature's strangest creatures: Little head, long neck, fat middle. When fully grown, it is taller than the tallest professional basketball center. The ancients called it "camel bird" because, with its ungainly walk and long neck, it looked rather like a camel. And if it's true that the camel looks as if it were created by a committee, the ostrich looks as if it were created by an even bigger committee.
Despite its looks, and an undeserved reputation for sticking its head in the sand when it is afraid, the ostrich is rather enjoying a national craze that is being reflected in Connecticut.
In the last few months five ostrich owners from the state have joined the American Ostrich Association, a trade organization for ostrich owners based in Fort Worth. Its membership is an indication of how popular the bizarre bird has become.
"It's unbelievable," said the association's executive director, Susan Adkins. "We didn't start until late in 1988 and with only 400 members. Now we've got 3,350 members."
Most of them, she added, are from the warm parts of the South, Southwest and California, but the new interest in the flightless birds has extended into the chilly New England states and even into chillier Canada. Big Question, Big Answer
The big question about ostrich (the plural of the bird can be either ostrich or ostriches but owners prefer ostrich for both singular and plural) is, why anyone would want to get close to them? The big answer is money.
Meat from ostrich tastes like filet mignon, growers say, and is high in protein but with half the calories and lower in fat and cholesterol than chicken or fish. In addition, ostrich can be raised with much less cost, and in less space, than beef cattle.
"Raising cattle is a marginal business today," Ms. Adkins said. "Texas and Oklahoma ranchers have been turning to ostrich for survival."
An ostrich is also valuable for more than meat. Practically all its parts are worth money: skin to make cowboy boots, feathers for decorations and high fashion creations, eyelashes for fine paintbrushes, even corneas, closest to the human eye, used for research and possible transplants.
Connecticut residents jumping on the ostrich bandwagon include a Middlebury couple, Patricia Yarborough, an educational consultant, and her husband, John P. Burke, a banker. "It's an interesting new business," Ms. Yarborough said. But their pair of birds is not in Connecticut. They are at a Texas ostrich ranch and the owners get down occasionally to visit them and check on their progress. "They are difficult to raise," Ms. Yarborough explained, "and the people in Texas are professionals at it."
Other Connecticut owners, however, are raising the African-native birds themselves and learning as they go.
One of them is Madeleine J. Calder of the hilly town of Washington. She keeps four ostrich behind high wire fences in her back yard on the crest of one of the hills.
Beyond are trees and more hills, with graceful homes tucked in here and there, a picture postcard of rural New England. In that setting, the big birds look even more incongruous, as if they had just stepped out of a Far Side cartoon.
No Weekends in New York, Please
Ms. Calder gave up a career selling residential real estate in Manhattan to go into the ostrich business full time. She said that raising the birds, which she saw an up-and-coming investment opportunity, was not that difficult. Their main food is a special blend put out by Purina. "After three months, they're indestructible," she said. She will concede, however, that ostrich do not react well to stress. "You couldn't take them to New York for a weekend," she said.
Ostrich have a reputation for being dumb birds, and Ms. Adkins said the reputation was well deserved. "Some people think they make a turkey look smart." But Ms. Calder disagrees. "I can train them to do something in one day," she said of her feathered friends. "They're not dumb."
Right now, though, she is less concerned about the I.Q. of her birds than about how a court case involving them will be resolved.
Ms. Calder said she had cleared the way for keeping ostrich with the Washington Zoning Commission. However, the town's Zoning Board of Appeals disagreed with the commission's finding. The commission responded by suing the board.
While the town's feud continues, Ms. Calder is even more anxiously waiting to see if her two female ostrich, Bonnie and Juliet, produce eggs this year, at 2 years of age. So also, perhaps, the mates, Floyd and Gallagher: In the ostrich world, the male bird traditionally sits on the eggs at night. A Certain Fascination
Meanwhile, Washington might become the ostrich capital of Connecticut because another resident is awaiting delivery of a pair of the birds from Ohio. George A. G. Darlow, an investor, said he was getting in on the ostrich business partly because he considered it a good investment but partly because the birds had a certain fascination. "They're fun. Not cuddly, but fun," he said.
But it is the money part of the business that is fascinating most speculators. The birds are now being raised not for meat but for breeding, as prize livestock are bred. The total number of ostrich in the United States today is estimated to be 50,000, but the American Ostrich Association says it would take 280,000 of the birds to establish an ostrich industry that could cut in -- by one-tenth of 1 percent -- to the national beef market.
Those kinds of figures have triggered speculation in the birds to an extent that is amazing to people in the market. Ms. Calder said she paid $28,000 for her two pair of immature ostrich little more than a year ago but that currently they would go for $60,000. The American Ostrich Association recently reported that a pair of proven breeders would go for $45,000 to $100,000 and the price range for a three-month-old chick would be $4,000 to $4,500.
The prices both elate and dismay people in the business. They are glad that the ostrich is beginning to be recognized as a bird beneficial to humanity, and perhaps part of the answer to world hunger. At the same time, Ms. Adkins of the ostrich association notes, many people might get involved in ostrich without knowing what is involved, or the risks in such a bullish market.
Also watching the ostrich phenomenon with more than passing interest is the state's veterinarian. "They have become very popular recently," Dr. Jack A. Meister said, "but there are lots of unanswered questions on them. As time goes on, we may have to have regulations on them but they do not seem to have any problems, disease-wise, now."
He also felt the ostrich might just be one more animal craze that would eventually fade away, at least in Connecticut. He cites people raising deer herds or llamas as examples. "You don't hear much about llamas any more," he observed.
That said, he would admit that he found ostrich rather fascinating, as do most of the people who come close to the huge bird. And the people who own them say the ostrich's reputation for being a giant chicken, by sticking its head in the sand, is not deserved. One ostrich expert said that in its native habitat, in the arid sections of Africa, the ostrich would flatten itself on the ground to make itself as invisible as possible in times of danger from predators. Sometimes it would stick its head in a tuft of grass, which would make it appear it was actually burrowing into the sand. But it didn't actually burrow. There's a subtle difference.