Though they might not be quite as well known as their larger cousins, the Ostriches, Greater Rheas have their own charms. For example, Flora and Fauna are two female Greater Rheas who live with some Galapagos tortoises in the South America loop of the Reid Park Zoo. They can’t wait for visitors to notice them, usually hurrying right up to look you quizzically in the eye and staying there as long as you do.
Rheas come to us from Brazil, Bolivia, and other countries in southeastern South America. They live in grasslands and scrublands, near sources of water. They’re flightless, and range from 3-5 feet tall (the males are bigger ) and weigh from 33 to 66 pounds. That’s one big bird – with really long wings that are only used for balance (flapping sort of like a rudder) while they’re running or dodging predators. They have three toes on each foot, and could definitely hold their own in the big, flightless bird Olympics – they can run 40 miles per hour!
When you think about it, female Rheas have a pretty nice life, and not just in their roomy habitat at the Reid Park Zoo. First of all, they lay golden eggs! It’s true – the eggs are a golden color. Secondly, once they’ve laid those eggs, their child-rearing duties are complete. They’re free to spend their days poking around for plants, seeds, roots, and maybe even a lizard or two.
Male Greater Rheas usually mate with multiple females, then build huge nests, where each of these lucky females lays about 5 eggs over a week or so. Nests can accommodate up to 60 eggs. It’s the dad’s responsibility to incubate all those eggs for about six weeks. Well, unless he’s a really dominant male, in which case he might designate a male underling to care for this batch of eggs while he goes off on another mating spree and has to build another nest.
Anyway, the males summon females for mating by calling VERY loudly. It’s no wonder, then, that the baby chicks, just before hatching, begin whistling – loudly! Once they hatch, the male continues to bear all the responsibility for raising them.
The Greater Rheas’ conservation status is near threatened, due mostly to illegal wildlife trading of their hides, feathers, and eggs. Also, their feathers are used to make feather dusters. But if you visit Flora and Fauna, I’m sure you’ll agree those feathers really look much nicer on these curious and amiable creatures.