Before you provide sanctuary to an ostrich friend, it’s important to understand their species-specific needs that are likely quite different from other residents’ needs at your organization! This article will cover some of the basics of providing care for ostriches so you can ensure they are happy and healthy.
Ostriches are very large birds, the largest of all species of birds.They can grow to be as tall as 8 feet and weigh 350 pounds! Suffice it to say, their needs are a little different from those of your average sanctuary bird resident! While female ostriches are light brown, the males of the species are black and white. Ostriches belong to a group of birds called ratites. Rheas, Emus, Kiwis and Cassowaries also belong to this group of flightless birds. There isn’t much information available about housing and diet requirements for ostriches compared to other species like chickens, but this guide will provide some basic information on the general care of ostriches in a sanctuary setting.
Housing For Ostriches
Like other residents, it’s important that ostriches have indoor and outdoor living spaces that are protected from predators, create shelter and shade, and, ideally, provide an enriching environment. Due to the size of ostriches, housing is going to look quite different than with your other bird residents!
Additionally, birds in general do not seem to like being directly under power lines. If possible, try to avoid building under them if possible!
The biggest differences are high fencing and lots of outdoor living space. At the very least, ostriches should be provided with an outdoor living space that is 20 feet by 100 feet. However, even larger is better. Ideally they should be able to stretch their legs and have a good run! A 6 to 8 foot fence is recommended. The fence should be buried about 6 inches below the ground, and any posts should be placed outside of any fence material. Fencing with 2 by 4 inch or smaller openings is recommended so ostriches cannot stick their heads out of the openings.
Ostriches also require shade. The source of the shade doesn’t matter so long as there is plenty for everyone. Trees, shade cloths, or shelters are all acceptable forms of shade. It is important that every resident has shade access. For this reason, it is important to observe group behavior to be sure no one is being bullied and chased away from resources like shade. If you have neighboring flocks of ostriches, it can be useful to use a shade cloth as a barrier between living spaces if you observe confrontational behaviors between groups.
Due to their inquisitive nature, ostriches are at particular risk of hardware disease. They enjoy exploring things in their vicinity and great care should be taken to clear living spaces of any potential hazards. While the skin on their legs is quite thick, the skin on their necks is delicate and can be easily torn on sharp edges and protruding bits of metal. Droppings and debris should be cleared out daily.
Packed sand or dirt flooring is recommended for indoor living spaces. Nesting materials such as hay should be made available as bedding. Concrete floors are only acceptable if you have a rubber matting over them, and these mats must be kept clean. While ventilation is an absolute must, you must make sure the living space is not drafty either.
As with other residents, fresh, clean water should be provided at all times. Automatic waters are fine, but should be checked daily. for proper function. Be aware that if you decide to use an electric water heater, it needs to be properly ground and the water tank and the heater must be inaccessible to ostrich residents. If exposed, they may peck at these parts in addition to extension cords, risking injury.
There should be areas for your residents to dust bathe in as it helps them clean their feathers. They do not have a preening oil gland so dust baths are an important part of their self-grooming ritual.
Nutritional Needs For Ostriches
In the wild, ostriches are omnivorous grazers, feeding on grasses, berries, seeds, succulents, and insects and small reptiles. They pick up small pebbles and bits of sand to aid in the grinding of their food in their gizzard. Providing continuous grazing opportunities, along with placing “forage stations” around their outdoor living space can encourage natural behavior and provide necessary stimulation. You can provide seeds or treats of finely chopped greens and fruits and veggies. Be careful not to include large pieces of fruit and vegetables, as these can get caught in their throats.
Adult ostriches can be fed a commercial ratite diet and have fresh water available at all times. This should make up about 80% of their diet. Adults generally require about 3 pounds of food daily. Check with a veterinarian to ensure you are offering the best diet for your resident ostriches. Fruits and greens can make up the rest! Some foods to try include grapes and cherry tomatoes. They will also forage on grasses and insects. Grit is not required for birds on pellets, as these birds normally obtain sand from eating items off the ground. But be aware that ostriches eating too much gravel or sand can lead to impaction problems.
Luckily, there are commercial diets for ratites. Ostrich chicks can be fed a commercial diet so long as the protein range is between 17-22%. They can be free fed until they are 4 months old. Then they can be fed an adult commercial ratite diet. Thinly chopped greens can be offered as well. Water should be offered when they are a couple days old with special care that they cannot fall in and drown.
Medical Care For Ostriches
As with any species, ostriches are susceptible to a variety of illnesses and diseases. The following are some to watch out for:
Parasitic, Protozoal and Fungal Infections: Fecals should be checked every six months for both parasitic worm eggs and protozoa. You should work with an experienced veterinarian to determine de-worming needs and scheduling based on each individual ostrich. Testing for Chlamydophila, Salmonella, and other organisms should be performed periodically. Coccidiosis is common in chicks and may also be observed occasionally in adults. Ostriches are also susceptible intestinal worms, tracheal and lung worms, and protozoa. Like other bird residents, ostriches are susceptible to fungal infections such as aspergillosis. They need a clean, dry environment and fresh, uncontaminated food.
External Parasites: Ostriches can be affected by a number of external parasites. The most common of these are lice, ticks, and mites. Observe residents for scratching behavior as this can indicate the presence of parasites. Take a good look at their skin and feathers, especially in the areas around the legs, wings, neck and vent.
Bacterial And Viral Infections: Ostriches are at risk of contracting a number of bacterial and viral infections. Botulism, antrax, ulcerative enteritis, and campylobacteriosis are all possible bacterial infections. Viral infections to look out for include newcastle disease, avian pox, and avian influenza.
Fractures: Fractures may occur if resident ostriches are restrained using their vestigial wings during procedures. This is why it is so important to never grab or handle ostriches by their wings. Leg fractures are always serious and may result in such a significant quality of life decline to the extent that euthanasia may be recommended.
Impaction: This can be caused by a combination of stress and access to foreign materials. Additionally, moving residents to a new or unpalatable diet can encourage them to look around for other, less appropriate things to eat. Call a veterinarian is you think your resident has eaten something that might cause an impaction.
Reproductive Issues: Peritoneal hernias, egg peritonitis, and egg-binding are all conditions to look out for.
Before approaching a resident ostrich for a health exam, observe their gait from a distance. Check their body condition, behaviors, and general mood. Look around their living space for fresh droppings and urine, as hard feces can indicate dehydration or intestinal impaction. G You can also examine any droppings for tapeworm segments and collect a sample for a fecal check.
Exam their body visually from top to bottom, looking for any signs of lesions, discharge, swelling, or parasites. Palpate the throat, chest and abdomen and check their heart rate. You can check out our resource for turkey health exams to get a general idea of where to start.
Enrichment For Ostriches
Adding buckets with colorful balls (you must be sure they are big enough that they cannot be swallowed) for them to explore, hanging treat balls, and adding forage to their outdoor living spaces are great places to start for enrichment. Remember, it is only enrichment if the individual finds it enriching. If they are frightened by something or uninterested in it, then it isn’t enriching.
Social Needs Of Ostriches
In the wild, ostriches usually live in small flocks with less than a dozen birds total. Generally, a single male will accompany a group of females, with one female being the head female. Different flocks will mingle at water sources and occasionally, one flock will adopt the young of another. When possible, ensure that there are harmonious groupings of resident ostriches. They will need plenty of space and an enriching environment.
Before you need to handle your resident ostriches for medical care, start by simply spending time with them so they are comfortable with you. If you do this, then you may have an easier time performing a full health exam when it comes time. Try a “less is more” approach when you need to move them from one place to another. Calmly and slowly walk behind them (keeping a safe distance) with your arms outstretched, encouraging them in the direction they need to go.
Of course, ostriches are individuals with their own preferences and history that can affect their comfort with human interactions. Go slow and try and make interactions non-threatening and positive.
DO NOT crowd and corner them! This can cause unnecessary stress and injury as they may attempt to flee. While ostriches are generally not confrontational towards people, they can still injure themselves or a human if they are struggling against restraint or feel cornered or chased. If a resident ostrich requires restraint, the people (this can require 2-3 people) restraining them should approach calmly from the front side and calmly reach up and gently place a hood over their eyes, lowering their head, while a second person approaches and holds them from behind to prevent them from backing away. Remember, an ostrich kick could seriously injure a handler, so be careful!
While this resource doesn’t provide all the answers, hopefully it helps give you an idea about the needs of ostriches in a sanctuary environment.
General Care Of The Ostrich | Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic (Non-Compassionate Source)
Management of Ratites | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)
Ostrich Production Systems | FAO (Non-Compassionate Source)