What would you do if a four-foot tall bird strolled into your quiet, suburban backyard? It seems a moot point for most of us, since birds the size of people do not roam freely in most neighborhoods. But one week ago, Stanley and Margaret Wainwright of Derbyshire, England had to answer that question for real when a Rhea turned up in their garden. Their response, as reported by BBC News, is an offer of avian adoption.

Stan Wainwright said: “We saw it Monday morning. It came through the paddock at the rear of the field.

“We rang the police up but they didn’t know anything about it.

“Someone’s told us it could be a rhea of the ostrich family. That is all we know about it.”

The Wainwrights, who already keep 11 geese, have made appeals in local newspapers and on BBC Radio Nottingham to try to trace the owner but have not had any replies.

Rheas are large flightless birds native to South America. This particular bird is probably, based on its size, a Greater Rhea (Rhea americanus) the larger of the two rhea species and the largest bird in South America. They are not, as Mr. Wainwright suggests, of the ostrich family, but they are related. Rheas, along with Ostriches, Emus, Cassowaries and Kiwis, belong to the Order Struthioniformes. These species are collectively called ratites. They are all flightless birds without a keeled breastbone, and, with the exception of the cuddly kiwi, are far and away the tallest birds in their respective territory.

Odds are that the wayward ratite was a farm animal. The Rhea and Emu Association, based in Leicestershire, states that rheas present ‘new opportunities for farmers looking for a profitable alternative to more conventional and traditional ventures’ since these birds have no difficulty in adapting to the climate in the UK. Ostrich, emu, and rhea are raised as livestock in the U.S., Australia, Israel, France, New Zealand, China, Korea, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Holland, Poland, and Canada. Most producers today raise ostrich, emu, and rhea for their meat, with the hides, feathers, fat, egg shells, and other parts of the birds as by-products.

We wish the Wainwright’s luck with their new charge. Rheas make excellent pets because they eat just about anything. Rheas are grazing animals, feeding primarily on grasses, but supplement their diet with other vegetable matter, insects, lizards, and other small animals. They’re also easy to manage, disease resistant, and hardy. Last but not least, they are as close to Big Bird as most kids are ever going to get.

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.