Rhea Birds… Care, Diet, History, and LOTS of Information

Rhea americana (/ˈriːə/) is distantly related to the ostrich and emu. Native to South America they are found in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.

However, there are established invasive groups in some areas, Germany being the largest wild populations outside of the Americas.

The name “rhea” was used in 1752 by Paul Möhring and was adopted as the English common name. Möhring named the rhea after the Greek Titan Rhea, whose Greek name (῾Ρέα) is thought to come from ἔρα “ground”.

These large ratites are grassland birds and both species prefer open land. and prefer to breed near water and lowlands, seldom going above 4,900 ft. On the other hand, the lesser rhea will inhabit most shrubland, grassland, even desert salt puna up to 14,800 ft.

Ratite: flightless birds without a keel on their sternum bone

Depending on the South American region, the rhea is known locally as ñandú guazu (Guaraní, meaning big spider, most probably in relation to their habit of opening and lowering alternate wings when they run), ema (Portuguese), suri (Aymara and Quechua), or choique (Mapudungun). Nandu is the common name in many European languages.

The genus Rhea was introduced by the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson in 1760 with the greater rhea (Rhea americana) as the type species.

In the order Rheiformes., most taxonomic authorities recognize two extant species: the greater or American rhea (Rhea americana) and the lesser or Darwin’s rhea (Rhea pennata). The genus contains eight subspecies.

Interestingly, Rhea pennata was not always in the genus Rhea. In 2008, the SACC, the last holdout, approved the merging of the genera, Rhea and Pterocnemia on August 7, 2008. This merging of genera leaves only the genus Rhea. 

Added, a former third species of rhea, Rhea nana, was described by Lydekker in 1894 based on a single egg found in Patagonia, but today no major authorities consider it valid.

Rhea is the fifth largest bird in the world and the largest in America. The only birds that are larger are the Ostrich, Cassowary, Emu, and Emperor Penguin in that order.

 Large males of R. americana can reach 67 inches tall at the head, 39 inches at the back, and can weigh up to 88 pounds The lesser rhea is somewhat smaller as they are only 39 inches tall at the back.

Their wings are large for a flightless bird 8.2 feet and are spread while running, to act like sails. Unlike most birds, rheas have only three toes. Their tarsus has 18 to 22 horizontal plates on the front of it.

It’s called the tarsus, but we call it the bird’s leg. Birds walk on their toes and have one bone, the tarsometatarsus, that’s formed by the fusion of what would have been their ankle (tarsal) and foot (metatarsal) bones if they were mammals.

Rhea’s feathers differ from both emu and Ostrich. The wing plumes are long like those on an ostrich however the R. rachii is more flexible and the barbules are soft like an emu.

The common rhea has brown or gray upperparts and whitish underparts, while Darwin’s rhea is somewhat smaller in size, and its brownish plumage is tipped with white.

 It happens that rhea doesn’t have a proper urinary bladder. Oddly, they store urine separately in an expansion of the cloaca.

Rhea Diet:

For the most part, wild rheas are vegetarian and prefer broad-leafed plants but they also eat fruits, seeds, and roots, as well as insects such as grasshoppers and small reptiles, and rodents.

Young rheas generally eat only insects for the first few days. Outside of the breeding season they gather in flocks and feed with deer and cattle.

In captivity, diet is mostly a commercialized pellet for ratites. We use a Mazuri product. It is important to provide vegetation mostly is greens, lettuce, and hibiscus leaves but it is also in the form of apples, grapes, squash, tomatoes, and a wide range of homegrown food sources.

Benefits Of Mazuri® Ratite Diet

  • Low energy, low protein – Designed to address leg problems that can occur with high energy and protein.
  • Highly palatable – Animals readily consume the amount needed.
  • Can be fed free-choice – Convenient; animals regulate their own intake.
  • Added levels of essential minerals – Not necessary to supplement with other minerals.
  • Pellet form – Easy to feed; easy for animals to handle; minimizes waste.
  • Natural preserved with mixed tocopherols.

Click here to go to the Mazuri website for this product to read more…CLICK HERE

Raising Rhea Chicks:

Hatching Rhea Chicks:

  • If you are planning to hatch rheas, you will need an incubator. The incubator should keep the eggs at 99.5 °F (38 °C) until they hatch and for up to 36 hours after they hatch.
  • Rhea chicks incubate in their eggs for about 38 to 40 days.
  • It is important to raise more than one Rhea together because they are social animals.

Keep Newborn Rhea Warm. 

  • Use a dog house or kennel to house hatchling rheas and keep them out of the elements. 
  • Make sure that the floor is easy to clean so that you can protect the young birds from disease.
  • Baby rheas’ shelters should be equipped with a working heat lamp to ensure that they’re kept in an environment that is about 90 °F (32 °C).

Walk Baby Rhea:

To develop strong bodies and legs, the rhea must have room to run and exercise. Birds that are provided with lots of room have less chance of developing leg problems and are less apt to eat droppings that are associated with overcrowding.

Rheas are terrestrial, walking birds, using their long, strong legs to cover greater distances and only run during social activities, like impressing a potential mate, or when threatened. They run in a zigzag pattern, using their wings and necks to steer them in different directions.

Click to check out the baby Rhea’s….

Provide Manganese To Growing Rhea:

Leg and skeletal problems are a very important area especially from welfare points of view and are common in some breeds of birds. Issues include rickets, TD, spondylolisthesis, slipped tendons, tibial rotation, and femoral head necrosis.

A deficiency of manganese in the diet of immature avian is one of the potential causes of perosis and chondrodystrophy, and also the production of thin-shelled eggs and poor hatchability in mature birds.

The most dramatic classic effect of manganese deficiency syndrome is perosis, characterized by enlargement and malformation joints. Prevention can be as easy as a few tablespoons of Manganese into the waterbowl a few times per week

It is suggested NOT to provide extra calcium as long as you are feeding the Mazuri Ratitie diet. Calcium is an important mineral because chicks need calcium to help form strong bones. Egg-laying females need calcium to help form strong eggshells. Even after laying eggs, female birds need calcium to replenish what she’s lost in the process.

These birds eat ANY thing!

Preventing Impaction

  • When food or grass becomes firmly lodged in the proventriculus (the true stomach) it is a serious and lethal problem with rheas and ostrich. When this happens nothing, even water will pass through. The only reliable treatment seems to be surgical removal of the impaction.
  • Rheas are most susceptible between three and six months. They will eat leaves, rocks, hardware, grass, etc. It is best to keep these items unavailable to them by properly policing the area in which they live.
  • All items with the exception of food should be eliminated. You should not have a problem with food causing impaction if you provide proper grit.

Long-term Health

  • De-worming chicks can be done by several methods. By the addition of de-wormer to the water, by individual oral administration, by topical application to the back, or by injection.
  • Check feces daily to see if it is of an abnormal color or consistency. If it is, you can take a sample to your vet for analysis. There are many causes of abnormal stools, including endoparasites, bacterial enteritis, old feed, stagnant water, etc.
  • Chicks are susceptible to upper respiratory and central nervous system infections.
  • Watch for the following symptoms: eye or nasal discharge, wheezing or labored breathing, weakness, lack of coordination, convulsions, staggering, bumping into the fence, etc. In the case of any of these symptoms, isolate the animal and get your veterinarian’s advice. He may suggest an antibiotic and support therapy. Birds may have to be rehydrated subcutaneously or tube-fed.

Housing Rhea Birds:

Fence off an appropriate living area. 

  • Fence in an area large enough for adult birds to freely roam using chain link fencing. The more male birds you own, the more space you will need in order to accommodate the colony. Males become aggressive during the breeding season. You will need about one acre for every two males in order to avoid issues and injury.
  • Keep the fence free of rocks, bolts, screws, and other small items that the rhea could eat. Rheas will eat any little thing they can get a hold of.
  • Always have the housing in place before bringing home the birds.

Check Out How We House Our Rhea Birds In This Video…

Plant trees, bushes, and shrubs inside the fenced-off area. It is important for the rheas to have natural shelter in the areas they are kept in. They turn this vegetation into nesting areas and use it for shelter from extreme temperatures or weather.

  • Rheas will also look to these plants as a food source, so plant things they like to eat, such as grasses, chicory, and alfalfa.
  • Rhea is even known to eat toxic and spiny plants, so you can plant a wide variety of plants for them to enjoy for shade and food.

Provide shelter for the birds. 

  • For their safety, all young birds should be closed in at night. Adult rheas will also appreciate shelter from cold, wind, heat, predators, and sometimes, each other. The size of the shelter will be determined by the size and amount of rheas you will be hosting.
  • To reduce fighting and competition, house your rheas according to their age. Keep rheas of similar ages together. Do not put younger birds with older birds.
  • A three-sided shed or a lean-to is adequate for adult rheas. A small garden shed would work for a young bird or two.

We were told by the breeder we trust not to use hay as bedding due to impaction possibility.

Allow your rhea to graze. 

  • Feed your rheas a diet as close to their natural food as possible. For the most natural approach to raising rheas, set aside established sections of grass, clover, and alfalfa in a large enclosed area. Use this area to promote natural grazing among your rheas.

Supplement the rheas’ diet with suitable foods. 

  • There are various foods that are good for the rheas. For instance, invest in some ratite bird food to give to the rheas. This will be balanced with the nutrients the birds’ needs. 
  • Also, generous scatterings of fruits and vegetables can be tossed to the rheas in order to supplement and round out their diet. Since rhea has strong beaks, fruits and vegetables can be given to these birds whole.
  • It’s a good idea to talk to a vet who specializes in the care of large birds about your rhea’s diet.

Provide grit for proper digestion. 

  • Rheas must have the grit to digest their food properly. This grit can come in the form of sand or small pebbles. The best grit for rhea is crushed granite.
  • Oyster shells can work well too and they provide the bird with a source of calcium. However, they break down more easily, so the bird has to eat more to ensure proper digestion.

Supply fresh drinking water at all times. 

  • A water source should be provided for the rheas that are frequently refreshed. They should be able to access it all day and night. All animals that you raise should have unlimited access to water, especially animals that spend most of their time outdoors.

The maximum longevity of greater rheas in the wild and in captivity is unknown. They are known to live for up to 13 years in captivity, but it is possible for them to live longer.

Conservation Status:

The IUCN lists the puna rhea (Rhea tarapacensis) as a separate species. The IUCN currently rates the greater and puna rheas as near-threatened in their native ranges, while Darwin’s rhea is of the least concern. 

Rheas have many uses in South America. Feathers are used for feather dusters, skins are used for cloaks or leather, and their meat is a staple to many people.

Gauchos traditionally hunt rheas on horseback, throwing bolas or boleadorasma, a throwing device consisting of three balls joined by rope at their legs, which immobilizes the bird.

The rhea is pictured on Argentina’s 1 Centavo coin minted in 1987, and on the Uruguayan 5 peso coin.

Comically, in July 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was bitten by a rhea.

A small population of rheas has emerged in northeastern Germany after several couples escaped from an exotic meat farm near Lübeck in the late 1990s. 

Contrary to expectations, the large birds adapted well to conditions in the German countryside. Currently, there is a population of well over 100 birds in an area of 58 square miles between the river Wakenitz and the A20 motorway, slowly expanding eastward. 

A monitoring system has been in place since 2008. The population is steadily growing. After the relatively long and cold winter of 2017-2018, the number of rheas dropped slightly to 205 in March 2018. However, by autumn 2018 their numbers greatly increased to about 566. As such, local farmers claim increasing damage to their fields, and some biologists say the rheas pose a growing risk to local wildlife. 

Still protected by German natural conservation law, a local discussion has begun regarding how to handle the situation. Some farmers have been allowed to hunt male rheas in small numbers as part of a compromise. Studying the bodies of hunted birds may yield knowledge regarding the influence of a new environment on the German rhea population.


Let us know your ideas and comments below!

%d bloggers like this: