The largest bird on the American continent, the greater rhea (Rhea americana) belongs to a group of flightless birds known as ‘ratites’, which lack the keel of the breastbone to which the flight muscles attach in flying birdss. However, despite a superficial resemblance - which led Charles Darwin to describe the species as a “South American ostrich” - the rhea is not thought to be closely related to the other members of this group, the ostrich, emu, cassowaries and kiwis. The plumage of the greater rhea is generally greyish-brown, with darker patches on the neck and upper back, and whitish feathers on the thighs and abdomen. During the breeding season, a prominent black ring develops at the base of the neck. The greater rhea’s feathers, not needed for flight, are long and plume-like, and the grey legs are long and powerful, with strong toes, and are adapted for running and for ranging over large distances. Rheas have a deep, resounding call, which resembles the roar of a mammal more than the call of a bird. Mainly produced by the male during courtship, the sound of this call gives the rhea its local name, “ñandú”. The male greater rhea is slightly larger and greyer in colour than the female, with a more pronounced dark patch on the neck and upper back. Young birds are greyish, with dark stripes. Five subspecies of greater rhea are recognised, based on variations in size and in the extent of black on the neck, although the exact characteristics and ranges of several of these subspecies are tentative. The greater rhea can be distinguished from the other rhea species, the lesser rhea (Rhea pennata), by its longer legs, lack of white spotting on the plumage, the more greyish than brownish coloration, and feathering on the legs which does not go below the tarsal joint.
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