The Rheas

IN the New World the place of the Ostriches is taken by a somewhat closely related group of birds known as the Rheas, Nandus, or American Ostriches (Rhea). They are confined exclusively to the pampas of South America and are readily distinguished from the true Ostriches by the presence of three toes, a feathered neck, and practically no tail, though they agree with the Ostriches in the absence of after shafts to the feathers. While there are numerous other differences in the skeleton and soft parts, it may be stated that the Rheas have the powerful legs and hence the similar tremendous speed of the Ostriches. Their habits, as will be recounted later, are also similar.

The Rheas are divided into three quite well-marked species, the largest being the Common Rhea (Rhea americana) found in Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the Argentine Republic. It is much inferior in size to the true Ostrich, although about fifty-two inches in total length. The general color above is slaty gray, with the head blackish and the neck whitish, becoming dark between the shoulders. The under parts are whitish with the exception of two black crescents on the upper breast. This Rhea was once abundant throughout the Argentine Republic, but with the advent of firearms it has disappeared from many localities. The following account is from the pen of Mr. W. H. Hudson, who had opportunity for many years of studying its habits: “The Rhea is particularly well adapted in its size, color, faculties, and habits, to the condition of the level woodless country it inhabits; its lofty stature, which greatly exceeded that of many of its enemies, before the appearance of the European mounted hunter, enables it to see far; its dim gray plumage, the color of the haze, made it almost invisible to the eye at a distance, the long neck being so slender and the bulky body so nearly on a level with the tall grasses; while its speed exceeded that of all other animals inhabiting the same country.

” The Rhea lives in bands of from 3 or 4 to 20 or 30 individuals. When they are not persecuted they show no fear of man, and come about the houses, and are as familiar and tame as domestic animals; sometimes, indeed, they become too familiar. When persecuted Rheas soon acquire a wary habit, and escape by running almost before the enemy has caught sight of them, or else crouch down to conceal themselves in the long grass. Their speed and endurance are so great that, with a fair start, it is almost impossible for the hunter to overtake them,however well mounted. When running the wings hang down like those of a wounded bird, or one wing is raised and held up like a great sail, for what reason it is impossible to say.”

The nesting season in the Argentine Republic begins in July, and several females lay in the same nest, which is simply a depression in the ground, each hen laying a dozen or more eggs. Hudson says: “It is common to find from 30 to 60 eggs in a nest, but sometimes a larger number, and I have heard of a nest being found containing 120 eggs.” The incubation is conducted entirely by the male, who watches over the young with great solicitude. The eggs when fresh are a fine golden yellow, but they grow paler day by day, until finally they fade to a parchment white. Eggs are frequently laid away from the nest, scattered on the pampas, for after the male begins sitting on the eggs he drives the hens away furiously, forcing them to deposit the eggs at random.

The Long-billed Rhea (R. macrorhyncha), a bird similar in size and habits to the one just described, is found only in northeastern Brazil. It is browner in color and has the crown darker and the bill longer. It must be quite rare.

The smallest of the Rheas is known as Darwin’s Rhea (R. Darwini), the first specimen having been obtained by him while on the celebrated voyage of the Beagle. It is only thirty-six inches in length and is found in Patagonia, mainly south of the Rio Negro. “When pursued it frequently attempts to elude the sight by suddenly squatting down among the bushes, which have a gray foliage, to which the color of its plumage closely assimilates.” It has much the same habit of holding up the wings when running as the Common Rhea, but usually it runs with its neck stretched forward, thus making it appear even lower than it really is. The nests are similar to those of the other species, each often containing 5o or more eggs. The eggs when first laid are a deep, rich green; this fades to a yellowish, then a stone blue, and finally almost white. Many waste eggs are found at a distance from the nest.

Darwin’s Rhea was formerly very abundant, but the fluffy wing-feathers were exported in large quantities to be used in the manufacture of feather dusters, and as a result the birds have become extremely scarce except in the far interior. They were captured, as are the other species at the present time, by means of the bolos, the wellknown South American sling. The one used for Rheas consists of two half-pound leaden balls connected by eight feet of twisted rawhide twine. When thrown with proper precision it entangles the legs of the birds, and they become an easy prey. The birds are approached on a fleet horse until within proper throwing distance, or sometimes a whole community of natives unite in enclosing a large area of country, driving the birds towards a constantly decreasing circle, when they are all captured. In recent years firearms have been resorted to, and it would seem that these splendid birds are likely to be wholly exterminated unless steps are taken to protect them.