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Raising Rhea

Craig Hopkins

Raising Rhea

Father Knows Best 

People who raise rhea are often confronted with a common problem of having too many males.  Since rhea are polygamous-polyandrous, which means that one male can be used with several females, this problem is compounded even more.  The purpose of this article is to inform people how these surplus males can be used to raise chicks while still maintaining maximum egg production from the females. 

In the wild, a male rhea will court and mate with a group of females.  These females will lay eggs in the male’s nest until he has a clutch of eggs.  Once the male has a clutch of eggs, he will not accept any more eggs from the females and the females will move no to another male.  Once the male begins incubating the eggs, he will only leave the nest for short periods of time to eat and drink.  The male will continue his parental duties until the eggs are hatched and the chicks are raised to an age where they can live on their own.  This method of raising the chicks can be used in today’s rhea operation; but in the wild, a hatch of 30-40% is considered good.  For the majority of people raising rhea, these numbers are not acceptable.  In some areas of the country, many nests will be lost to flooding caused by excess rain and soil types which will not allow the nests to drain properly. 

The following information will describe a much more efficient method of using the male rhea to raise chicks.  Most male rhea will do a fine job of raising their chicks, but some steps can be taken to improve the chances of success.  The male and his chicks should be kept in as large of an enclosure as possible because he will walk the chicks constantly in their search for food.  We feel that the lot should be at lease one acre in size.  The fencing for this lot should prevent predators like stray dogs and coyotes from disturbing the male while he is on the nest or while he is raising the chicks.  We feel that chain link fence is the best answer because it deters predators and it keeps the chicks from slipping through the fence where they could be injured or killed by predators.  Electric fence can be used on the outside of the fence to keep predators from climbing into the lot.  The lot should have grass, clover, alfalfa, and etc., established in it because green vegetation will be the primary food source for the chicks as they grow.  The lot should be kept mowed to keep fresh greens growing.  Shrubs and trees provide a good source of shade and food for the male and his chicks.  They also provide cover for the chicks from flying predators such as hawks. 

To begin this method of raising rhea chicks, the male must be allowed to establish a nest site where he can set on some eggs for 2 to 3 weeks.  At the beginning of the breeding season, each male which is to be used to raise chicks, should be paired up with a females or group of females.  This will allow the male to court the females to his nest and to mate with the females.  Once the females begin laying eggs in his nest, the eggs should be collected and put in an incubator to begin incubation.  The male should be left with at least 1 egg in his nest at all times so that he will continue using this nest.  After the eggs have been collected for 2 or 3 weeks, the male should be left with 3 or 4 infertile eggs in his nest to encourage him to begin setting and incubating the eggs.  Once the male has started incubating the eggs, he will refuse to accept more eggs from the females and he will only leave the nest for short periods to eat and drink.  At this time, the females can be moved to another pen to continue laying eggs for another male.

The male should be allowed to set on the infertile eggs for 2 or 3 weeks.  The eggs should be checked occasionally to insure that they don’t become rotten and possibly explode (which would drive the male from the nest).  This problem can be eliminated by using eggs which have had the infertile contents removed and replaced with sand.  The sand makes the eggs feel normal to the male and helps prevent breakage of the eggs while they are in the nest.  After the male has been setting on the nest for 2 or 3 weeks, the infertile or sand filled eggs should be replaced with 5 or 6 good eggs that have been in an incubator.  These eggs should be within 1 day of one another in hatching dates so that none of the chicks get left behind because of hatching too late after the other chicks have hatched.  Also, the good eggs that are put under the male should be about 3 days away from hatching.  This will give the male and the chicks time to call to one another to establish the bond among themselves.  This calling will also stimulate the chicks to hatch and there should be no need to assist the chicks in hatching. 

A few hours after the chicks have hatched, the male will lead the chicks from the nest to begin their search for food.  He will brood the chicks at night and during cold or stormy weather.  After the male has raised his chicks for 2 or 3 weeks, 5 or 6 chicks can be removed from a brooder and given to the male.  These chicks should be about 1 week old so that they can keep up with the male and the older chicks.  The male will adopt these chicks as his own and raise them with the other chicks.  It may be necessary to confine the male and his chicks to a smaller area of the lot for a few days when the new chicks are introduced.  This will help the adoption go more smoothly and it will help prevent any chicks from being left behind by the male.  If more than one family group is kept in the same lot, it is not uncommon for the males to try to adopt chicks from one another’s group.  This is mother nature’s way of achieving unrelated birds. 

The family group will require very little supplemental, processed feed if the lot is large enough and there is plenty of green vegetation for them to eat.  Leaf lettuce is an excellent food source for the chicks as they grow.  The will consume large quantities of lettuce during the summer.  An easy way to provide large amounts of lettuce is to sow it in strips throughout the lot.  A small disk or roto-tiller can be used to make strips that are 4 to 5 feet wide and whatever length desired.  The lettuce seed is broadcast over the strips and covered by disking the strips again or by dragging a chain behind a garden tractor.  If the lettuce is sown right before a rain shower, it will begin sprouting almost immediately and there will be a good stand of lettuce in a few weeks.  Along with the green vegetation, water should be provided for the family at all times.  This can be accomplished artificially or through the use of a pond or stream. 

This method of using surplus male rhea to raise chicks has worked well for us through the years.  Not only is this an easy way to raise chicks, but these chicks will be stronger and healthier than most chicks raised using today’s modern techniques.  People raising rhea in other areas of the country may have to modify the information presented to fit their climate and soil type.  By observing the family group as they grow, people can learn a great deal about how rhea chicks are raised in the wild.  A lot of this information can be applied directly to assist in raising rhea chicks in artificial surroundings.

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