Very large flightless birds with long legs and three toes; plumage gray or spotted brown and white; wings used only in display, reduced with long soft feathers; no tail feathers and no casque on the head
36.4–55 in (92–140 cm); 33–88 lb (15–40 kg)
Number of genera, species
2 genera; 2 species
Savanna, grassland, and high mountain plains
Not threatened. Populations are now fragmented and numbers have declined, but still abundant in some areas
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay
Evolution and systematics
Rheas belong to the group of large, flightless birds known as the ratites, which all lack a keel to the sternum and a distinctive palate. The origin of these birds has recently been clarified by the discovery of numerous good fossils in North America and Europe. Whereas it used to be thought that ratites had a southern origin, in the old continent of Gondwana, new fossil evidence has shown flying ratites inhabited the northern hemisphere in the Paleocene and Eocene, 40–70 million years ago. The present southern hemisphere distribution of ratites probably results from the spread of flying ancestors of the group from the north. Fossil rheas have been found in the Upper Pleistocene of Argentina. They lived there about two million years ago; it is thought that rheas are related to Tinamidae.
Rheas are smaller and more slender than ostriches: standing upright they reach 5.6 ft (1.7 m). They may weigh up to 88 lb (40 kg), the head, neck, rump, and thighs are feathered, and their plumage is soft and loose. There are three front toes, and the hind toe is absent. The tarsus has horizontal plates in front. The gut and the caeca are very long. Urine is stored in an expansion of the cloaca and is eliminated in liquid form. The copulatory organ is extrudable. In the greater rhea (Rhea americana) total height reaches 5.6 ft (1.7 m); height of the back is 3.3 ft (100 cm), wingspan reaches 8.2 ft (250 cm), tarsal length is 12–14.5 in (30–37 cm), and bill length is 3.5–4.7 in (9–12 cm). Males are larger than females. The tarsus has about 22 horizontal plates in front. The lesser rhea (Pterocnemia pennata) is smaller than the greater with a height at the back of 3.0 ft (90 cm). The tarsus is 11.0–11.8 in (28–30 cm) and has about 18 horizontal plates.
Rheas are confined to South America—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.
Rheas are birds of grassland, the greater rhea and one sub-species of lesser rhea, Pterocnemia pennata pennata, of lowland grassland or pampas. The other two subspecies of lesser rhea live in the puna zone of the Andes, inhabiting deserts, salt puna, heath, and pumice flats. Although P.p. pennata feeds on lowland grassland in the non-breeding season, it usually
breeds in upland areas where bunch grass grows, around 5–6,000 ft (2,000 m).
Rheas are silent except as chicks, when they give a plaintive whistle, and during the breeding season when males make a deep booming call, sometimes described as like the last tone of a siren or as a di-syllabic grunt. In any case one of the renditions of the call "nandu" has become a common name for the bird. Males perform an elaborate display while giving these calls, raising the front of the body, with the neck held stiffly upwards and forward and the plumage greatly ruffled. Wings are raised and extended, and after calling the bird may run some distance, sometimes flipping the wings up and down alternately. Usually this display, the call display, is given near females and may be followed by the wing display, that is directed at a specific female. The male spreads his wings, lowers his head, and walks in this posture beside or in front of a female, holding the display for 10 minutes or more. Females seem to be attracted to a male displaying in this way. As the display becomes more intense the male waves his neck from side to side in a figure-eight pattern, often attracting females to watch him for several minutes before they move off to feed. If a female remains beside a displaying male, she may solicit and copulation follows.
During the non-breeding season the greater rhea forms flocks of 10–100 birds, while the lesser rhea lives in smaller flocks than that. As in the ostrich, birds in small flocks are more vigilant than those in large flocks. They are also more vigilant when in tall grass environments than on open plains. Rheas feed most of the day in these flocks, although males show mild aggression to each other from time to time. When fleeing in alarm, a rhea will follow a zigzag course, often raising one wing, apparently to act as a rudder and help it to turn rapidly. Dust bathing is common in captive birds. Flocks break up in the winter for the breeding season.
Feeding ecology and diet
Both species of rhea are mainly herbivores. Both take a few small animals—lizards, beetles and grasshoppers—but not in any significant quantity. Most of the present range of the greater rhea is used for cattle ranching, with the result that pastures have been seeded with fodder grasses and forbs. The greater rhea takes much alfalfa and maize. The Lesser rhea lives in less developed areas, but is mainly herbivorous, taking forbs like saltbush and fruits of cactus.
Much information has been gathered about the reproductive behavior of the greater rhea, both in the wild and in captivity. It is a polygamous bird, meaning both males and females take two or more mates. When the winter comes, the flocks break up into three types of groups—single males, flocks of
two to 15 females, and large flocks of yearlings. Males soon begin posturing and challenging each other, behavior that becomes intense as the spring and summer breeding season arrives. Males attempt to attract harems of females, building a nest and leading females toward it. When a harem has chosen a male, one female will approach the nest. The male may stand but usually remains sitting or crouching, twisting his neck to follow the movements of the female as she walks around the nest. The male, at first acting aggressively and spreading his wings to cover the eggs, gradually relaxes and replaces head-forward movements with head-bobbing and neck swinging. The female crouches and lays her egg at the rim of the nest and the male rolls the egg beneath himself. In this way, with eggs from as many as 15 females, he may build up a clutch of 50 or more eggs in a week. Then he begins to incubate in earnest. As in the ostrich some eggs remain outside the nest, and these seem to act to dilute the clutch, so that it is less likely that the eggs being incubated are taken by predators, because they first take the eggs outside the nest. Recent work has shown that some males have male partners. A subordinate male may take over the clutch from the first harem of females that the dominant male attracts, incubate them, and parent the chicks. Meanwhile the dominant male attracts another harem, or the same one to another nest, incubates the second clutch and rears the second brood. Measurements show that both dominant and subordinate males are equally successful at incubating and raising broods.
The mean clutch size of the greater rhea in Argentina is 24.9 eggs and the incubation period 36–37 days. The male alone incubates, leaving the nest from time to time to feed. As in other birds, chicks in the eggs are able to communicate with each other and synchronize hatching, so that the male stays no more than 36 hours on the nest once hatching begins. Breeding success is usually low, about 20%, but in some years breeding success is greater than this. Some nests are deserted when bad eggs explode during incubation, and in other cases armadillos dig under the nest and eat the eggs. Predation also accounts for the loss of many small chicks; birds of prey follow broods until one chick straggles and then snatch it. Much less is known about the breeding biology of the lesser rhea, but it appears to have a similar breeding system, clutch size, and incubation period.
The greater rhea is farmed in some areas for its meat and leather, but the range available for wild birds is shrinking, and many are taken by hunters. Similarly the lesser rhea suffers from development of its environment by the construction of roads that allow hunters access to country that was previously inaccessible. Both species need large, well protected reserves if they are to survive as wild populations.
Significance to humans
Feathers of rheas have always been taken for use as dusters. Skins are used as cloaks in their dried state and as fashion leather when fully tanned. Rhea meat has long been a staple food for South Americans, who are now able to hunt the birds more effectively with rifles than they were when they had only the bolas, a weapon made of three thongs of leather tied together centrally. At the outer end of each thong a small stone is attached. The bolas is whirled around by the hunter and thrown with great skill and accuracy at the running bird. The thongs wrap around the birds legs and bring it to the ground, effectively immobilizing it. The bolas is still used, even by scientists who want to catch the birds alive.
List of SpeciesGreater rhea
Rhea americana Linnaeus, 1758, Sergipe and Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil. Five subspecies.
other common names
English: Common rhea; French: Nandou d'Amérique; German: Nandu; Spanish: Ñandú.
50–55 in (127–140 cm); 44–88 lb (20–40 kg). General color gray or grayish brown above, whitish below without spotting in both sexes. The head and neck of the male are black or largely black. The female is paler. Unlike the lesser rhea, the whole length of the tarsus is bare and covered with transverse scutes.
Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The form in eastern Brazil, Rhea americana americana is the nominate, or first named, form. R. a. intermedia comes from southeastern Brazil and Uruguay, R. a. nobilis from Paraguay, R. a. araneiceps from Paraguay and Bolivia, and R. a. albescens from Paraguay and, possibly, Bolivia.
Grassland and pampas.
Greater rheas live at densities of 0.002–0.076 birds per acre (0.05–0.19 birds/ha). In the nonbreeding season they live in flocks of 20–50 birds. Once the breeding season starts, males establish a nest site and defend its immediate vicinity, attracting groups of females to lay in the nest.
feeding ecology and diet
Herbivore, feeds on grasses and forbs.
Males incubate eggs laid by harem of females in a nest on the ground. The mean clutch size is 26, the eggs coming from up to seven different females. Females are attracted to the nest by male displays in which the wings are prominently displayed. The male leads the female to the nest and often sits on it while she lays outside it. He then rolls the egg into the nest. Eggs are greenish yellow color, 5 by 3.5 in (13 by 9 cm). Incubation period is 29–43 days, by the male only.
Population fragmented by agricultural development.
significance to humans
Hunted for meat, leather, and feathers; now farmed.
Pterocnemia pennata d'Orbigny, 1834, Lower Río Negro, south of Buenos Aires. Three subspecies.
other common names
English: Darwin's rhea; French: Nandou de Darwin; German: Darwinstrauss; Spanish: Ñandú Overo.
36–39 in (92–100 cm); 33–55 lb (15–25 kg). The plumage is spotted brown and white. The upper part of the tarsus is partly feathered, but the rear and lower part is bare, covered with transverse scutes.
Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. The nominate form, Pterocnemia pennata pennata, lives in southern Chile and Argentina, while P. p. tarapacensis lives in the Andes of Chile and P. p. garleppi lives in the Andes of Peru, Bolivia and northwestern Argentina.
Grassland, high Andes in the puna zone.
Lives in flocks of 2–30 individuals at a mean density of 0.28 birds per mi2 (0.11 birds/km2). Males defend nest sites during the breeding season. A male attracts groups of females to a
nest site and lay there, leaving the male to incubate the eggs alone.
feeding ecology and diet
Feeds on fruits and leaves of forbs, the items taken varying by place and season. In some places grasses are prominent, in others shrub foliage and fruits are mostly taken.
Males incubate eggs laid by harem of females in a nest on the ground. The greenish yellow eggs measure 4.9 by 3.4 in (12.6 by 8.7 cm) and are incubated for 30–44 days. Clutch size varies from five to 55 eggs, depending on the region. The birds mature in their third year.
Two isolated populations subject to severe hunting pressure.
significance to humans
Hunted for meat and leather.
Davies, S. J. J. F. Ratites and Tinamous. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
del Hoyo, J., A. Elliot, and J. Sargatal, eds. Ostrich to Ducks. Vol. 1 of Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1992.
Bruning, D. F. "The Social Structure and Reproductive Behavior in the Greater Rhea." Living Bird 13 (1974): 251–94.
Codenotti, T. L., and F. Alvarez. "Cooperative Breeding Between Males in the Greater Rhea Rhea americana." Ibis 139 (1997): 568–71.
S. J. J. F. Davies, ScD