• Sara Thompson

Big-bird Dads Are the Rhea Deal


rhea bird with chicks
Rhea with chicks; Photo by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


Rheas are large, flightless birds found in South America. The largest bird in South America, they stand between 3-5 feet tall, with males being larger than females. They are related to ostriches and emus, and look very similar, but do not have tail feathers. Their plumage is primarily on their head, neck, and bodies. Plumage is generally brown or gray, with white on the underside. They have longer wings than most flightless birds, which they use for balance and changing direction when running. They also flap their wings to ward off predators.


During breeding season a male will try to attract several females and can mate with anywhere from two to twelve individuals. A male rhea builds a single nest by scraping the ground to make a depression and lining it with leaves and grasses. All the females a male has mated with will lay their eggs in the single nest and leave the incubating to the male. A female rhea can lay up to five eggs each in the nest. Depending on the number of females, a male rhea’s nest can contain up to 60 eggs! After all the eggs have been laid in the nest, the male will incubate the eggs for about six weeks until the eggs hatch. The rhea hatchlings will all hatch within 36 hours of each other no matter what order they were laid in. After hatching the male will care for and protect the hatchlings until they reach their adult size at around 6 months old. Young rheas will primarily eat insects. As they grow their diets will become more diverse and include things such as leafy plants, fruit, seeds, larger insects, and even small lizards.


In nature it is much more common for males to not be involved in the rearing of young. Rheas are one of the few who are almost exclusively raised by the fathers. While rheas are still small the fathers will protect and attack any potential threat, even female rheas.



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