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Raising Rhea

Craig Hopkins

Raising Rhea

A down-to-earth approach 

For people who are considering buying their first rhea or for people who have just begun with their first rhea, the amount of information available on how to raise rhea can be very scarce.  The purpose of this article is to help people who have an interest in raising rheas.  The information that follows is a brief summary of the techniques and philosophies used by us to raise rhea on a limited budget. 

The first step towards having a successful rhea operation is to have adequate facilities to accommodate the birds in place before you buy your first bird.  It makes no difference if you are buying mature breeder rhea or week-old chicks, proper facilities can save the beginner a lot of money and birds.  It is not necessary to go out and have a state of the art building erected to house the birds.  For adult birds, a simple three-sided shed with a roof on it and bedded with hay or straw is more than adequate.  The size of this shed will depend on the number of birds to be housed.  For small chicks, a large dog house can be used for warmth and Astroturf or indoor-outdoor carpeting is used for good footing.  For larger chicks, a small utility shed that can be purchased at most hardware stores can be used for housing.  Again, a heat lamp is used for warmth and hay or straw is used for bedding. 

We feel that for any age of rhea, chain link fencing is the best and most economical fencing that can be used.  It will outlast most other types of fence, and it protects the birds from predators and injury caused by the birds running into the fence when startled.  It is not necessary to have a contractor install brand new chain link on your farm at a large expense.  Used chain link can be found almost anywhere, and a lot of chain link factories have seconds that can be purchased for approximately half price. 

Another area where a beginner can save a lot of money is in the purchasing of incubators and hatchers.  It is not necessary to purchase an expensive, state of the art incubator to raise rheas.  Old, redwood incubators can be purchased for under $500 through auctions or local newspapers.  We install new switches, wiring, thermostats, motors, etc., in these “old” incubators, for minimal expense, to make a state of the art incubator in a 30 to 40 year old shell.   

Our approach to raising rhea of any age is based on following mother nature as closely as possible.  Rhea have survived in the wild for centuries, so mother nature must be doing something right.  Our efforts to duplicate conditions found in the wild are described as follows.  Adult rhea are kept in large enclosures which have good stands of grass, clover, alfalfa, established.  The fencing and buildings used for these enclosures are planted with trees, shrubs, and bushes to provide natural foods, shelter, and seclusion for nest sites.  The adult birds are kept in breeding colonies that consist of two males and five to six females.  Since male rhea are very aggressive towards one another during the breeding season, these enclosures need to be at least one acre in size to allow the males enough space to avoid constant fighting.  The presence of the second male stimulates the dominant male to continue to mate with the females for good egg fertility throughout the breeding season.  The use of breeding colonies allows for maximum use of pen space while continuing to duplicate conditions found in the wild.  Also, the second male provides a backup to the dominant male in case something should happen to him.  The birds have access to feeders containing a ratite pellet and dry chunk dog food.  The dog food is used to provide meat protein the birds would get in the wild in the form of frogs, lizards, bird eggs, etc.  Apples, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables are fed when available to supplement their diet. 

Rhea chicks of all ages are raised in smaller lots that have grass and clover established.  If the weather permits, 2 and 3 day old chicks are introduced to these lots in order to allow them to begin exercising and strengthening their legs.  We have seen 1 day old chicks walk 1 to 2 miles while being raised by their father.  Small chicks, which are kept in lots with trees and shrubs, should be watched closely because small chicks will sometimes try to ingest twigs that fall to the ground.  The chicks have free access to the lots during the day to exercise and catch insects.  At night, the chicks are shut inside the buildings described earlier.  Chicks of all ages are fed chopped lettuce and a ratite starter diet.  Leaf lettuce, which is easily grown in a garden, is preferred for young chicks because it is tender and easy for them to eat.  Head lettuce can be used for chicks over 2 to 3 months, since they are big enough to handle the coarser and tougher head lettuce.  Grit is kept in their lots at all times, so that they can digest the grass, clover, lettuce, and etc.  We feel that feeding lettuce and allowing the chicks to fee on grass, clover, and insects is very important because these are the same types of foods that the chicks would feed on in the wild. 

An excellent way for beginners to learn how to raise rhea chicks is to use surplus males to raise chicks.  A lot of valuable information can be learned by observing a male while he raises his chicks.  A method of using the male rhea to his maximum potential in today’s rhea operation will be described in a later article.

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