Greater Rhea

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Scientific name: Rhea americana

Other common names: Common Rhea

The basics:
Rheas represent South America's answer to Africa's Ostrich or Australia's Emu – a tall, flightless bird found on the open plains and scrub, a category of birds also known as the ratites. The Greater Rhea, as its name suggests, is the largest bird in South America, although it's both smaller and less popular in aviculture than Ostriches and Emus. As South America is currently undergoing a rapid period of growth and development, the Greater Rhea is losing habitat to agriculture, causing the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) to list this species as, “Near Threatened.” There's also a concern that the true population of wild Greater Rheas has collapsed unseen, because observers still see plenty of feral domestic-bred Rheas roaming around.

At around 4 to 5 feet tall in adulthood, the Greater Rhea is noticeably smaller than both the Ostrich and the Emu. There's a decent amount of individual and subspecific variation in the gray and brown plumage, but take note of the black on the lower neck and sides of the breasts. Lesser Rhea lacks this black on the neck, making it easy to distinguish the two species even at a distance. The male Greater Rheas are considerably blacker in this area than the females, but they are all blacker than Lesser's.

Average weight:
23 - 32 kilograms (50 - 70 lbs.)

15 - 20 years

Like other birds that spend a lot of time on the ground, Greater Rheas may need a de-worming schedule. You will want an experienced veterinarian who is capable of handling a large bird capable of giving a hard kick. Get a referral from other ratite breeders. The chicks have sometimes been reported to be difficult to rear in captivity. Make sure the incubator area, if you are using one, is absolutely clean and dry to prevent mold or respiratory infections.

Behavior / temperament:
As with most other ratites, adult male Greater Rheas become extremely territorial during the breeding season. Their aggression may be quite understandable, since multiple females will dump as many as 80 eggs in the nest for him to incubate, hatch, raise, and defend, causing all of his paternal instincts to be fully engaged. Be aware that you will be able to have only one adult male on the territory and that he may be quite difficult for the keeper to handle. Even though Emus are larger, some people say that Greater Rheas can be more irascible. On the upside, outside of breeding seasons, these birds do recognize their keeper and they can learn to come running for treats from your hand.

Adult male Greater Rheas are extremely aggressive and territorial birds who are also dedicated fathers. In nature, multiple females might dump eggs in the same nest for the male to raise. Ranchers have discovered that the same set-up works well in captivity – one adult male for a harem of several females is the way to go to avoid aggression, fighting, and territorial conflicts between males. Each harem should offer at least 2,500 square feet of territory for the birds to roam, and you should supply a shelter against bad weather as well as a generous dust pit for bathing. Like Emus, they may also appreciate a clean, shallow pond. The fence should be at least five feet high, with secure gates to prevent these well-known escape artists from being lost.

Greater Rheas are grazing animals that have no crop, so they swallow small stones to help grind up the grains they eat. Unfortunately, they also have an attraction to shiny objects and may try to swallow your jewelry or other metal items, so be cautious. Their wild diet is tough and high in fiber. A good captive diet is a ratite or Ostrich pellet, supplemented with alfalfa or other browse, and treats like broccoli, carrot, or even grapes. Always have plenty of clean water available.

Written by Elaine Radford


flightless bird, gentle bird, jumbo sized eggs, Rhea beef


aggression, beaks


shoulder height, predation, multipurpose pellet feed, Predators, Good livestock animal

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