Tue. Sep 27th, 2022

History of raising ostriches

Ostrich (Arabic na-ama, French autruche, German Strauβ, Italian struzzo, Norwegian struts, and Spanish avestruz) have always been a fascinating species for more than 5000 years. Even the current birds are as fascinating as the older ones. Ostriches have been providing meat, skin, oils, feathers and eggs. Ostrich feathers have been fascinating the queens of earlier civilization, including the beautiful Cleopatra. Ostrich have been used for pulling small carts. Ostrich races are still in practice in the African and Arab countries. The ostrich is referred to in the Bible on several occasions. Ancient Egyptians referred to symmetrical ostrich feather to as a sign of justice. Greek and Roman generals decorated their helmets with feathers. Ostriches have been initially reared for their feathers (until II WW) and later for their skin (until 1980’s) and during the current times, their meat is the most preferred product. About 80% od current population is still reared in South Africa only. The most preferred habitat of the ostrich is open, short – grass plains and semi – dessert; they avoid tall grass and dense woodland areas. The birds tend to keep to lowland areas.

Ostrich is the only living species belonging to the family Struthionidae. It is the largest living flightless bird. It is highly adapted to terrestrial life. Ostrich have only two toes on each foot. Ostrich have long neck and keen eyes to see considerable distance of 12 to 14 kms, their powerful legs enable them to run at 70 km/h. Ostriches along with the group of similar birds like Emu, Cassowary, Rhea and Kiwi are grouped as RATITES. Based on the area of their origin, their characteristics have been modified to suit their habitat. Out of these birds, only ostriches and emu have been used for commercially exploitation. Others have been used for fancy purpose and are only mostly confined to Parks. The general features of these birds are given below;  

General Characteristics of Ratites

Height (m) (Max) Weight in kg (Max)2.5 1651.6 381.5 251.5 380.4 2
Body colour Male FemaleBlack Grey brownGrey Black MonomorphicGrey MonomorphicGlossy Black MonomorphicTin brown Monomorphic
Egg colorCreamy WhiteEmerald greenGolden whiteGreenGlazed white
Average Egg weight (kg)1.500.600.600.650.45
Average Incubation period (days)42 – 4458 –62423075 –78
CountryS. AfricaAustraliaBrazilAustraliaN. Zealand
Average Running speed (km/hr)7050505045


Ostriches are very well adapted to the environment from which they are evolved. As in poultry three systems are followed in their management, viz., extensive, semi intensive and intensive system.

Extensive system:

            Under this system at least 100 acres of land are required. The concept of this system is to rear the birds under the natural habitat with least disturbances. Though the main disadvantage is cost factor in the purchase of land but in terms of per bird cost, it is economical. Apart from that, other disadvantages are monitoring and identification of birds and eggs.

Semi intensive system:

            Under this system about 50 acres of land are sufficient. The birds are maintained in small paddocks of 5 to 10 acres depending upon the number of birds. Supplement feed are provided to keep their natural habitat intact. Advantage of this system is identification and monitoring of birds. This system also facilitates easy egg collection and management of young ones.

Intensive system:

            Under this system the birds are provided with less than 50 acres of land and they are further divided into small paddock of 3 – 5 acres. This is most popular under the current system of management. Only small area is required for maintaining the birds. The main disadvantage is less space for grazing, but if the birds are nutritionally adequate, then this is good for starting a farm. Capital investment is higher per unit of land area. Cost of fencing is also higher. The biggest advantage of this system is having a good control over breeding, record keeping, egg laying, etc hence the value of stock is quite high.


Ostriches are seasonal breeders with peak breeding noticed between March and Aug/ Sep in North hemisphere and in South hemisphere it starts around July /Aug and finishes by March end. Ostriches are sexually matured by 3 to 4 years under wild conditions and in organized farm they mature by 2 to 3 years. Females mature earlier than males. Male ostriches have white and black plumages when matured and female ostriches have duller and grayish brown plumage. Young ones have spiky, black tipped pluffy plumage until they are about 4 months of age. The plumage of the males is brighter during breeding season. The skin is usually light blue, becomes bright red over the beak and forehead and around the eyes. The leg scales and toes become pink. The young ones look very much similar and their sexes can be determined only by examining their sexual organs which is prominently seen during 8 – 9 months. Full distinction of sexes can be seen at about 12 – 14 months old. Nest building is also a process in which male plays a vital role. The male selects the place and starts to dig with its feet and beaks. The female follows and accepts the nest by lowering and fluttering the wings. Male ostriches are polygamous and prefer to mate with more than one female. Domesticated ostriches are kept in pairs or trios. Courtship display in ostrich is both complex and intriguing. Part of courtship in male involves rolling of the male, it squats on its hock and raises its wings backwards and forwards while hitting its head on each side of his back, making a thudding sound. The first fertilized egg is laid approximately 10 to 14 days after mating. Usually 80 to 100 eggs are laid during one season by high producing hens, but 40 to 50 eggs are laid on an average. Breeding birds perform better when the paddock is larger in size.  A minimum of 0.1 ha (0.25) paddock is required for two to three ostriches. If larger numbers are to be maintained, then the paddock size should be increased exponentially.


            Hatching eggs should be collected twice daily and stored in cool place with a temperature of 16 to 18o C for a period of not more than 7 days. Proper handling is must for higher incubation results. The egg should be stored with its broad end pointed upwards. Best hatchability results can be obtained with eggs in the range of 1300 to 1600g.  Under natural incubation practices, male sits on the egg during night time and female sit over the eggs during the day time. Thus, both male and female are involved in incubation. This is unique only in ostriches. The total incubation duration is 42 to 44 days. The temperature requirement for incubation is 35.9 to 36.5 o C and humidity level of 20 to 30 %. The eggs need to be turned every two to three hours inside the incubator. The eggs are transferred from setter to hatcher on 38 to 39 day of incubation and it stays in the hatcher for a period of last three to four days. Incubation and hatching in one of the key area to be focused in Ostrich rearing. Sexing at day old is practiced as in chicken. Skill and experience of the operator is more important than anything else. Apart from this method, DNA and surgical sexing are also practiced. Unlike in human, female sex chromosomes determine the sex of the chick. 


            Chick management is one of the most critical phases of ostrich rearing. Environmental stress factor can really have a devastating effect on the performance of the chick. Right temperature, good fresh water, nutritionally balanced feed, humidity, etc are some of the critical inputs. Initial brooding temperature should be maintained at 36 o C and reduced gradually to 21 – 23 o C to suit the chicks at 4 weeks of age. Higher humidity inside the premise would make the chicks to respire faster which is undesirable in early stages. Young chicks drink more water than the older ones; hence absolute clean water is required for the chicks. Lack of feed either in quantity or quality would badly affect the chick growth. Ostrich feeding is more of a social activity than an individual one. Hence, grown up chick can be allowed with the younger ones to train the chicks to feed properly. Measurement of feed and water is more essential to assess the growth in chicks. Feed and water should contain sufficient amount of vitamin and minerals. Chicks should not be handled unnecessarily to avoid any stressful conditions for the young ones. Prevention of disease is more important than trying all methods to cure them. Early chick mortality may occur due to one of the following conditions: yolk sac infections, lack of immunity, crop impaction, etc. The following floor spaces are required for the birds:

Age                                         Indoor                                     Out door

Up to 1 month                         0.5 sq.m / bird                         3 – 5 sq.m / bird

Up to 3 months                       1.00 sq.mt / bird                      10 sq.m / bird

Up to 1 year                            —                                              100 sq.m / bird

> 1 year                                   —                                              500 – 800 sq.m / bird

The chicks may be initially fed with a diet containing 26 to 28 % protein and later from 2 months onwards until 18 months fed with 18 or 20 % protein. Green fodder should always be made available during grower stage. There after maintenance diet of 16 % protein may be fed until sexual maturity. During laying a protein of 18 to 20 % will be sufficient. Most commercial feed companies produce starter, grower, maintenance and breeder rations.


            Ostrich chicks are relatively easy to rear after the completion of first six months. It is during these periods when the mortality percentage can go as high as 50 to 60 %. Most mortality among the ostriches occurs during the first 3 months. Omphalitis or yolk sac infection is the most common disease of the young ones. The “fading chick syndrome” or the mal absorption syndrome is usually a fatal one. Impaction can occur at all ages. Hence, the area of rearing of chicks and growers should be well checked. Avoid sudden feed changes or addition of sudden high fiber diets. Both, internal and external parasites can affect the ostriches. It is better to protect the ostriches against Ranikhet diseases.


            Ostriches are raised commercially for their meat and leather as their major products and feathers and oil as minor products. Ostrich meat is high in protein and low in fat. It is less in cholesterol and rich in iron content. Ostrich leathers are fine variety and most luxurious next only to crocodile. Ostrich leather is thick, durable and extremely soft. The products such as bags, shoes, purses are being sold at premium prices. Ostrich feathers are used for cleaning fine machinery and equipment and also for decorative industry. Ostrich oil is also proving to have excellent benefits and could have far reaching benefits in overall revenue collection.

Comparison of ostrich meat

SpeciesDescriptionProtein (%)Fat (%)Calories (mg)Iron(mg)Cholesterol (mg)
OstrichRetail cut26.93.01423.283
ChickenRetail cut28.97.41901.289
TurkeyRetail cut29.35.01701.876
BeefRetail cut29.99.32113.086
PorkRetail cut29.39.72121.186
VealRetail cut31.96.61961.1118

Characteristics and behaviour

Adaptation of the ostrich

The ostrich is very adaptable and thrives under extreme conditions. Among the many ways of regulating its body temperature, it controls heat loss during cold weather by covering its thighs with its wings, and during hot weather, by lifting and moving its wings, it creates a gentle breeze. The feathers are excellent insulators, minimizing heat gain from direct solar radiation, as well as reducing heat loss during cold desert nights.

It has a remarkable tolerance to heat, withstanding air temperatures of 56°C without undue stress. Heat is lost by panting via the well-developed air sac system that avoids overventilation of the lungs and consequent dangerous water loss (Jones, 1982). Adaptations of the blood circulatory system permit its body to heat up to a greater extent than those of other warm-blooded animals while still keeping the head at a safe temperature (Crawford and Schmidt-Nielsen, 1967). Ostriches rarely seek shade, as most desert animals regularly do. Furthermore, the ostrich’s urine contains uric acid carried in a mucus-like substance that helps to minimize water loss (Levy et al., 1990; Yagil et al., 1990).

Ostriches may be found in a variety of open habitats. They normally avoid areas of thick bush or heavy tree cover, and inhabit wooded grasslands and other open country. Semi-arid, open and short-grass plains are usually associated with the highest ostrich densities. They are also able to thrive in very poorly vegetated areas.

Behaviour of the ostrich

Ostriches are completely diurnal. They are on their feet for most of the daylight hours, except when dust-bathing, resting or nesting. They invariably sit down at dusk and remain virtually inactive throughout the night unless disturbed (Degen, Kam and Rosenstrauch, 1989).

The chicks and juveniles are strictly gregarious and always remain in compact groups. Adults are semi gregarious and tend to be attracted to each other for short periods. Like camels, ostriches can travel for long distances in search of food and water.

In addition to temperature control, ostriches use their wings for a variety of display purposes, including courting, protecting eggs and young and submission (Sauer, 1966).

The ostrich’s posture communicates information to other birds. A more confident and aggressive bird will hold its head and neck high, with the front of the body tilted upwards and the tail up, while a submissive bird will hold its head low and its tail down (Bertram, 1992).

Sexual characteristics

The wild ostrich is sexually mature at four to five years of age, while the domesticated ostrich is mature at two to three years; the female matures slightly earlier than the male. Male ostriches attain the black-and-white plumage when mature. Females and immature birds have a much duller colouring, with grayish-brown plumage. The young have spiky, black-tipped buff-coloured plumage until they are about four months of age. The plumage of the cock is brighter during the breeding/mating season, while the skin, usually light blue, becomes bright red (scarlet) over the beak, forehead and around the eyes, and the leg scales and toes become pink.

Male and female chicks are very similar in appearance and their sex can only be determined by examining their sexual organs. This is difficult as the penis of the male is still tiny and easily confused with the clitoris of the female (Gandini and Keffen, 1985; Samour, Markham end Nieva, 1984). From about seven to eight months of age, the sex can be determined when the bird urinates or defecates, as the penis emerges at these times. It is interesting to note that, unlike most birds, the male ostrich has a penis and that micturition and defecation are separate acts, although one normally follows the other almost immediately.

Full distinction between sexes is reached at about two years of age. The wing quills are pure white in the male, while they are ringed with grey or black in the female. The tail feathers of the male are white or yellowish brown and those of the female are mottled light and dark grey. The thighs of the adult ostrich are almost devoid of feathers.

It is important to note that the scarlet coloration of the male is dependent on the presence of mature testes, while its black plumage is dependent on the absence of ovaries. A castrated cock never acquires scarlet coloration, but its feathers are the normal black of the cock. Removal of the testes after sexual maturity has little effect on the bird’s sexual instincts, and it continues the mating procedure (Osterhoff, 1979, 1984).

The breeding season

Ostriches are seasonal breeders, breeding only during particular seasons of the year. On average, the breeding/mating season lasts from six to eight months every year, although the timing and duration of breeding can vary with latitude and altitude (Shanawany, 1994a). In the northern hemisphere, breeding commences during March and ends around August/September (Leuthold, 1977), while in the southern hemisphere it begins around July/August and finishes by the end of March (Jarvis, Jarvis and Keffen, 1985).


Male ostriches are polygamous and can mate with more than one female. In the wild, the cock starts nesting with one or two or even more hens. Domesticated ostriches are kept in pairs (one male and one female) or in trios (one male and two females) for the breeding season (Shanawany, 1993).

Part of the courtship display in ostriches involves the “rolling” of the male. He squats (goes down on his haunches) and flaps his wings backwards and forwards while hitting his head on alternate sides of his back, making a thudding sound. Usually silent, the male has a hollow booming call in the breeding season. The female holds her wings horizontally and flutters the tips. Her head is held low, and she opens and shuts her beak. When she is crouching, the male places his left foot next to hers and mounts with his right foot on her back. His penis passes into the cloaca of the female. Consummation is usually accompanied by his groaning, while the female snaps her beak and shakes her head (Osterhoff, 1984).

The female starts to lay fertile eggs shortly after mating. Eggs are laid every other day in clutches (sequences) of 20 to 24 eggs. The hen stops laying for a period of seven to ten days, after which she starts a new clutch. High-producing females lay between 80 to 100 eggs during the breeding season.

The eggs are laid in a communal nest on the ground, with other females laying their eggs in the same nest (Bertram, 1992). If the eggs are not removed, the female will start incubating them during the day, leaving the male to incubate from dusk to dawn. The male’s jet-black feathers assist in hiding the eggs during the night. For commercial ostrich farming, it is important that all eggs are removed from the nest at least twice daily (Shanawany, 1994b), since, if allowed to incubate, the female will stop laying until the chicks have reached four to five weeks of age, resulting in financial loss.

Ostrich eggs

As befits the world’s largest bird, the ostrich lays the largest egg of any living bird. Oddly enough, however, the ostrich egg is one of the smallest in relation to the size of the bird. Measuring 17 to 19 cm in length, 14 to 15 cm in width and weighing up to 1 900 g, the ostrich egg is only just over 1 percent of the female’s body weight. The eggs vary from white to yellowish white in colour and their hard shiny surface is pitted with superficial pores of various sizes and shapes.

Ostrich products

Today, ostrich farms are considered to be among the most profitable agricultural projects. They are often referred to as “the farms of the future” because of the large variety of possible products and hence their high profit potential. Ostriches are raised commercially for their meat, hide and feathers.


Ostrich feathers are used for cleaning fine machinery and equipment as well as for decorations and in the fashion industry. The quality of feathers produced from ostriches raised in Europe and North America differs from those produced in Africa. The best feathers come from the more arid regions of the world.


Ostriches produce red meat that is very similar in taste and texture to veal and beef depending on the age at which they are slaughtered. It is high in protein yet low in fat.

The study indicates quite clearly that ostrich meat is far better from the health point of view as it contains far less fat, and particularly less cholesterol, than other types of meat. Lately, with greater consumer awareness of the problems of high cholesterol levels in the blood and the possible association with increased incidences of heart attacks and cardiovascular difficulties, the demand for ostrich meat in the international markets has been growing. The latest statistics show that current ostrich meat production is not enough to meet the increasing demand, whether in Europe, North America or Japan. It is expected that during the next decade, ostrich meat may gradually replace traditional types of meat. It is currently marketed in a variety of ways, including cold cuts, frankfurters, pâté, fillet steaks and sun-dried (jerky or biltong), in addition to fresh meat.


Ostrich skin (hide) is considered to be one of the most luxurious leathers, and some even place it on a par with crocodile and snake skin. Ostrich leather is thick, durable and extremely soft and can be manufactured into a variety of products, such as shoes, bags, purses and jackets.

In addition to their meat, skin and feathers, ostriches are being explored for medical and medicinal purposes. The tendons of the ostrich leg are used to replace torn tendons in humans as they are long and strong enough for the human leg, and recent research in ophthalmology points to the possible use of ostrich eyes in cornea transplants. Ostriches are able to see clearly for over 12 km, and the cornea is large enough to be trimmed down to fit the human eye. Furthermore, the ostrich brain produces a substance that is being studied for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.


Ostrich farming is a very interesting enterprise. The investment involved is high as also the returns. Though the accurate economics is difficult to work under Indian conditions, due to lack of ostrich farms, proper data, cost of production, marketing structure, etc but it can be assured that the returns are @ 9 to 10% per annum during the phase of production. Ostrich farming in India can be started but with a caution that the supply and demand are well balanced, sufficient technical knowledge are available and of course availability of good quality chicks.    

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