Appears in
Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

rhea a flightless bird from S. America which comes in two varieties. The common rhea (Rhea americana) is the larger and has the more northerly range; the lesser or Darwin’s rhea (Rhea darwini or Rhea pennatus) lives in Patagonia and the Andean plateaux of N. Chile. It was this lesser rhea that Darwin described in The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Unfortunately the crew had cooked and consumed the specimen before he realized it was distinct from the larger birds he had met to the north. The skin was saved, however, so the identification could be made. Rheas are cousins to the ostrich, though they stand less tall and have three toes to the African two. The males are polygamous but hard-working: building the nest, incubating the eggs, and rearing the young unaided. They were hunted to near-extinction for their feathers and because their voracious appetite irritated farmers, but now are raised in Europe and N. America for their meat which may be treated as if it were ostrich, though lower in cholesterol. Rhea fat is used as an anti-inflammatory ointment and rhea oil is a base for cosmetic products.