The largest birds in South America, rheas are easily recognized by their great height, massive legs and shaggy feathers.
Where They Live
There are several species and subspecies of rhea found in grassland, scrub and arid habitats throughout South America.
What They Eat
Although they prefer plants, rheas are omnivores. They will also eat insects, snakes, lizards and small birds. Rheas swallow pebbles to help grind down their food.
What They Do
Rheas are flightless birds that spend their days grazing as they wander. Excellent hearing and eyesight allow them to detect predators, such as pumas and jaguars, from far away. They are speedy and can outrun most danger. Additionally, each wing is armed with a strong, defensive claw.
How They’re Doing
The greatest threats to rheas include hunting, egg collecting, and habitat loss as grasslands are used for farming. While most rhea populations are probably declining, their numbers are not well known.
- Like many flightless birds, rheas do not have flight feathers. Their feathers lack the velcro-like hooks that give flight feathers their stiffness. Instead, rheas have loose, soft plumage.
- While running at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour, large wings give rheas great balance and maneuverability.
- Rheas tend to be silent with the exception of chicks making whistles, or males seeking a mate. During courtship, males give a deep “nan-du” or “bu-up” that sounds more like a roar than a bird call.
- Locally called ñandú, rheas are rooted in South American culture. They appear in folklore and songs, are used for medicinal purposes, and their images are found on stamps and money.
- A rhea nest is a shallow depression on the ground, lined with dried plants. Several females will lay eggs in the same nest, so a typical nest contains 10-30 eggs. The male rhea single-handedly incubates the eggs for 30-40 days and cares for the chicks for about 6 months.