Ostrich Species for Farming
South Africa's Ostrich Farming Industry

Wild ostriches have roamed the African continent for centuries. These animals featured in Egyptian hieroglyphs and rock art, their feathers adorned the helmets of Roman warriors and North African tribes used the leather as shields. 

©Richard Rhee
The Kenyan ostrich. Note the small feathers on the female's head.

What is an Ostrich?

Initially, feathers for Europe’s fashion industry were harvested from wild ostriches, but in the 1800s ostriches were domesticated, and so farming and cross-breeding of the ostrich species began. Initially, only ostrich feathers were valued and used for fashion items from the 1860s to the 1940s, but later also the leather and meat of ostriches were utilised.

The ostrich, Struthio camelus, is native to Africa and the largest bird on the planet. It can not fly but can run up to 70 km/h when threatened. Males (roosters) have black and white feathers, grow up between 2.4 and 2.7 m tall and weigh up to 150 kg, but females (hens) adorned with grey and white plumage, are slightly smaller.

The ostrich’s long neck, which is almost half the height of the bird, is almost hairless and reddish to blue in colour, while its legs are bare. Males and females form small groups, usually a rooster with a few hens, and both genders take turns to hatch their eggs. Females will lay eggs in communal nests with the females doing the day-light duty of incubating the eggs, while the males will sit on the eggs at night.

Ostrich eggs are about 15 cm long and 12 cm in diameter. The eggs can be used for eating or the shell used for decoration, in jewellery and household items. In commercial ostrich farming, eggs are incubated to allow chicks to hatch.

Ostrich Species for Farming

There are various ostriches species in the world. These include the Somali ostrich (Struthio camelus molybdophanes) whose females are larger than males. The Somali ostrich male’s neck and thighs are grey-blue. The Masai ostrich or red-neck ostrich (Struthio camelus massaicus) has small feathers on its head and an orange neck and thighs. The North African or Barbary ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus) is the largest of all ostrich species. The southern ostrich (Struthio camelus australis) is the original wild ostrich found in South Africa.

In the early years of ostrich farming in South Africa, farmers imported the North African ostrich to improve the local South African ostrich. This produced the South African black neck or Struthio camelus domesticus. This species is considered a composite breed and is, therefore, not regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Somali and red-neck ostriches are used for farming in East Africa, but they are large and aggressive with poor feather quality.

The South African ‘black birds’ are smaller and easier to manage. The South African black ostrich is often recommended for new ostrich farmers and is widely farmed in South Africa as they produce superior long feathers and good leather and meat.

By Marinda Louw