Three of the best-kept secrets in Virginia have been living quietly in a cage next to the emus in Reston's Pet Farm Park.

"To get one born is wonderful and to get three is fantastic," said manager Janet Hart.

About five weeks ago Fred and Ethel, two red-necked ostriches, became the parents of three. Larry, Curly and Moe are now about one-foot tall, with mottled brown feathers that feel like straw. They will grow a foot a month until they reach the average ostrich height of eight feet.

For Fred and Ethel, the babies are the result of five months of intense mating, complete with a feather-flopping, leg-strutting dance and rendezvous three times a week.

"I would say Fred is definitely a stud," Hart said. "He certainly has a reputation and he is proud of it."

Fred paid no attention to his keeper's compliment, staring into space and occasionally preening a few of his heavy, black feathers.

Ethel, sitting out in a field near an elk, relaxed in the heat with her mouth open, to let air through her throat to cool her brain.

Both parents are ignorant of their accomplishment, since neither showed any interest in nurturing their clutch. Instead, the eight eggs were placed in an incubator at 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Four eggs hatched, three didn't, and one is still incubating.

All four chicks pecked their way out of grapefruit-sized eggs four to six weeks ago, but one bird, which Hart said was "never right from the beginning," died. She said the zoo waited until the other three stabilized before announcing the births.

Just what will three newborn ostriches mean to western civilization?

Not much. The slender-necked creatures with bulging eyes and brains the size of a nectarine are not known for their productivity. They eat bugs, spread grain and can run about 35 mph.

They are, however, the largest flightless birds.

Larry, Curly and Moe are healthy, although one has a slightly "off-jointed" leg. Hart hopes the problem will cure itself as the bird walks more. The floor of their cage has been covered with a tarp to prevent the voracious birds from feasting on gravel. Instead, their diet is the envy of any young child: a delectable mixture of high-protein turkey meal, chopped spinach and hard-boiled eggs.

It will take two years and several sets of feathers before the chicks' sexual identities become clear. Male ostriches have black and white feathers; the female plumage is brown.

The Pet Park Farm has 250 exotic animals, including a camel, zebras, a Siberian tiger, squirrel monkeys, llamas and tortoises, many of which are free-roaming and approachable by children.

Hart said the zoo would probably sell the ostriches, although it might keep one female for breeding.

Both Ethel and Fred have mysterious pasts. They are probably about three years old, but Hart said no one knows much about them. Last year the couple begat one baby, named Ronnie after President Reagan