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General Care of the Ostrich

OSTRICHES

 

     The ostrich is the largest of all the bird species, reaching heights up to 8′ tall and 350#.  They originally came from Africa and southern Asia.  There are 3 or more different subspecies.  Ostriches are members of a group of birds called ratites.  Emus, Rheas, Kiwis and Cassowaries are other species of the same group of flightless birds.  The information about housing and diet requirements for most birds is not very complete; as compared to chickens and poultry that have been domesticated for centuries.  For this reason you will hear many different ways to feed and raise ostriches.   Each area of the country also has its own different requirements for taking care of ostriches.  We are only providing general information within this handout.

     If starting with eggs you may store them at 55?65 degrees (59 degrees at 70% humidity is best) for up to 7 days before incubating.  While in storage or incubation the eggs should be turned daily.  Once incubation has begun you must continue the process till the egg hatches approximately 42 days later. (Incubation information requires much more space than is allowed here.  i.e. 25% humidity, warming up the egg at 1 degree per hour till 98 degrees,  1600?1700 grams weight initially with a 12% loss in weight to be expected, oxygen added at a 20% or less rate, etc).  Newly hatched chicks should be kept at a temperature of around 95 degrees while older chicks can be kept at 80 degrees.  When using a brooder lamp the chicks will shy away from the heat if it is too hot, and pile up if it is too cold or there is not enough heated brooder space.  A minimum of 40 square feet per chick is advised for the pen.  Adults exposed to chicks will sometimes not lay eggs, a natural way ensuring that too many chicks are not raised at once.  We have more information regarding eggs and chicks when you need it.  Visibly separate the chicks and the adults.  Ostriches do not need to eat grit to digest their pelleted food; too much sand can cause an impaction.  We advise a commercial ostrich ratite feed as 80%+ of their diet.

     Chicks should be kept on a level floor; uneven surfaces can contribute to toe problems.  Splayed legs or toes should be treated as soon as possible.  Carpet can be good flooring for chicks and should be discarded with each new batch (or sooner if soiled).  The edges of the carpet should be flamed for smoothness (so they won’t eat it) and turned upside down (smooth side towards the bird).  Other materials also work well.  Too large of rocks can cause leg problems.  Overfeeding of protein, calcium, phosphorus or other minerals can cause leg problems.  (Underfeeding can also cause the same leg problems).  A starter diet should be fed for the first two month of age.  There are also grower and mature diets available.  Waterers should be provided but not allowed to dampen the soil.  Birds will peck at wet soil and may become impacted with sand and dirt.  Electric heaters for ostriches can be a disaster; they will peck at anything, especially electric cords and light bulbs.  There are heated waters available that have “nothing to peck at”.  You always need to think of preventing all possible problems in their housing.  Look for ways they could get into trouble and prevent the problem (such as an area where their heads may get caught between the building and the fence, loose screws to eat, etc.  Build things so they cannot easily fall apart, such as using lock?tite with bolts, only materials designed for exterior use, no paints, etc.)

     Six to ten yearlings can be placed in the average 100′ by 300′ pen.  We advise 2 catches (or fences) around each pen of birds and a lock on the outer gate.  Some people like to feed grain, chopped beets/cabbage/oranges, etc. to their birds.  We prefer that you keep corn and similar grains to a maximum of 20%.  Feeding large pieces of fruits and vegetables, such as whole carrots, can catch in the bird’s mouth or neck.  The pelleted feeds are the best.  We do not advise “junk food”, leftovers, etc.  The birds can be sexed by observing for a phallus protruding in the male birds when defecating.  There are blood tests that can be used to sex birds.  Male birds are typically leg tagged on the right leg, while females are tagged on the left leg.

     Adults need fences that are at least 6′ high; chain link fences are most commonly used.  A 2″ by 4″ welded wire fence is the maximum hole size we advise; unless you go to the horse panels with openings that do not allow the head to catch in the fence.  Do not use non?welded wire that can be stretched or broken.   We advise placing the fence underneath the soil at least 6 inches, where the fence cannot be dug up.  Birds will try to stick their heads out of holes and predators may try to dig into the pen.  The average pen (100′ x 300′) is for 2 to 6 birds; anything less than 5,000 square feet per bird may result in infertility.  (Some people can get by with 2,000 sq. ft/bird, but this may result in management and stress-related problems).  A 40′ by 40′ catch pen is needed to work with adult birds.  The shelter should be at least 12′ by 12′, with 6′ wide doors.  The doors are usually offset to one side of the shed or the other.  Most birds are kept indoors at night to prevent predator problems.  A three sided shed can be adequate.  As long as the adult birds have access to shelter from rain, wind and wetness, they can withstand winters.  Shelter from the hot sun is also needed, but sprinklers may cause some hens to be infertile.  Should your birds be feather picking, you may have too many birds in one area and/or you are keeping the birds inside too much.  Most birds do not like overhead power lines and vibrations.  If your pasture is large enough to have different types of weeds, the veterinarian should visit and examine the land for poisonous plants.

     It is customary to place a microchip in the left side of the neck, should you utilize this identification method.  Velcro bands are commonly used, as they can be easily changed as the birds grow.  Birds require health certificates, lab testing, and veterinary examinations for transportation between states.  If purchasing an adult bird we may advise a pre-purchase radiograph for hardware, if possible.  Ostriches do not usually require vaccines, unless there is an E. coli diarrhea problem, bird pox, or other diseases in the area.  A sick bird will show signs of weight loss, diarrhea, feather problems, droopy eyes, nasal discharge, swollen joints, difficulty in breathing, and fluffed feathers in a quiet bird.

     The “candling dance” is a territorial dance.  The breeding season is related to longer day length periods and temperature (40 days at 12+ hrs/day).  You should pair up the male with 1 or 2 hens at least one month before this period.  Some females (or males) need to be switched if the birds are not interested in mating.  Too much rotating of the birds can cause infertility.  The season starts in May and ends after August, with July being the peak period of egg laying.  Ostriches mature at about 2?5 years of age (3 is average).  An adult bird usually requires only 3# of food per day.  As with any animal, obese birds are not very healthy and have more medical and reproductive problems.  The lack of estrogen produces a black color, thus most black hens are not mature.  It is possible for a bird to be “intersexed” (a black male with ovaries).  The sperm can live inside the hen for up to one week.  In nature the dominant female sits on the eggs during the day and the male at night.  The average hen lays an egg every other day (or about 42 eggs/year).  In nature the survival rate is only 20%; with incubation a 70% survivability is a good rate.  (10% of all eggs will be infertile, 10% will have birth defects, and 10% of the eggs will be lost in incubation).  The hatching of eggs usually starts in May or June with a lower fertility rate (40%) and peaks at in August (80% fertility).  Candling of the egg can be done 5?7 days after incubation.

     If the birds are intended for food, the use of some drugs and their withdrawal time needs to be considered.  The products used must be approved for food animals.  Some antibiotics, such as chloramphenicol, enroflaxin and some sulfa drugs are prohibited for use in all food producing animals.  The average slaughter age is around 14 months. 17 # of steaks, 57# of other meat, 14 sq. feet of leather and the feathers can result in a 1990 slaughter value of $425 ? $985 per bird.

 

The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic

 

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   We have many other ratite handouts available from facilities to egg incubation.  It is recommended to bring in a group fecal sample when asking for this information; 1/2 of a teaspoon of feces from 6-8 different piles or pens.

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