What Do Ostriches Eat? | Ostrich Diet & Nutrition

December 16, 2020

A flock of ostriches.

Ostriches are omnivorous, meaning they consume a variety of plants and animals.  Ostriches are highly flexible eaters and wild ostriches and those raised as livestock may have different diets.  While wild ostriches eat a variety of plants, bugs, and small animals, farm-raised ostriches are usually fed a balanced diet of commercially available feeds that mimic what they would naturally eat in the wild.

Why Do Ostriches Eat Rocks?

Ostriches are part of a classification called gastroliths, which literally translates to “stomach stones.”  Ostriches, like many other birds, do not have teeth, so digestion is difficult.  They swallow pebbles, rocks, and other “scratch” or “grit” and they hold them in a muscular part of their stomach called a gizzard.  They do not digest the rocks; instead, they use them to help grind down the various foods they consume in order to make them more easily digested.  Over time, the rocks will wear down until they eventually erode away completely.  When this happens, the bird will replace them with more rocks to keep their digestion on track. 

Wild Ostrich Diet

According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, wild ostriches are generally found in dry, warm savannas and various other arid and semi-arid locations throughout Africa.  The same article goes on to explain that these birds used to live throughout Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, but since they have become hunted more and more, their populations have been reduced primarily to sub-Saharan Africa.  The location of where they reside has a direct impact on their diet.

Forage and Plants

Ostriches have a diet made up primarily of plant matter.  In the wild, ostrich diets consist of roughly 60% plant material, 15% fruits or legumes, 5% insects or small-sized animals, and 20% grains, salts, and stones.  They are fairly selective in their choices, which include:

  • Green grasses;
  • Wild leaves and bushes;
  • Shrubs;
  • Plant roots;
  • Plant seeds;
  • Flora;
  • Sprouts;
  • Berries;
  • Nuts; and
  • Succulents.

Small Animals, Bugs, and Scavenging

Although small animals, bugs, and scavenging generally make up the smallest portion of an ostrich diet, it is still an important part of a wild ostrich diet.  Although ostriches are not predators that typically seek out or go after small animals, they will scavenge and eat remains of animals that are left by carnivorous predators.  Some examples of small animals and bugs that ostriches may consume include:

  • Mice;
  • Rats;
  • Snakes;
  • Lizards;
  • Frogs;
  • Grasshoppers;
  • Locusts;
  • Crickets; and
  • Moths.

Farm-Raised Ostrich Diet

On every continent except Antarctica, ostriches are raised commercially for their meat, cosmetic-grade moisturizing oils, and various other byproducts such as pet foods, leather, and eggshells.  Ostriches raised for commercial purposes are fed a variety of commercially available feeds, which vary significantly depending on what part of the world the farmed ostriches are raised.  Thanks to their flexible eating habits, as long as their ration contains all the vitamins and minerals their bodies need to thrive during different stages of life, many different types of commercial diets can be appropriate.  Because ostrich farming is not nearly as widespread and does not have anywhere near the historical experience as other farmed livestock, there is a dearth of information about what constitutes the most optimal commercial ration.  Certain companies such as American Ostrich Farms, headquartered in Idaho, have invested heavily in developing the optimal balances in the complicated science of feeds for ratites — also known as flightless birds. 

Vegetarian fed” is a hot topic of discussion within the livestock industry.  This label means that the animals used to produce various products are raised with food that is free from any meats, dairy, and eggs.  Proponents consider vegetarian diets superior for their animals due to various sustainability benefits

Feeding Baby Ostriches

Feeding baby ostriches is different from feeding adult ostriches.  As there is no accepted scientific research on how best to feed ostrich chicks, different producers employ many different tactics.  Some ostrich producers refrain from feeding the chicks any food or water for 6 to 8 days after birth, while others prefer to give them food and water as soon as they hatch.  Ostrich chicks have a fluid yolk sac that provides enough nutrition for them to last until they learn how to eat and drink on their own.  This yolk sac needs to be absorbed to promote healthy, proper development.  After no longer than a week from post hatch, the chicks should have full access to a commercial Starter feed that is relatively low in fiber and fats, and high in lysine.  Providing feed in shallow dishes and broadcasted on the ground will help chicks learn to eat.  Once they are 8 weeks old, they should be switched to commercial Grower feed until 12-16 months of age, when they should either be harvested or held back to further mature into breeding stock.  Grower feed has balanced levels of protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to promote healthy growth and it should be given to the birds once a day in the morning, in addition to any foraging they may do on their own.

Nutrients That Improve Ostrich Eggs and Chicks

If you are raising ostriches for breeding purposes, you want to make sure that they are receiving the right nutrients in their feed to improve ostrich eggshell and embryo quality.  Ostrich breeder feed should contain the following nutrients to avoid the effects of vitamin and mineral deficiencies in ostrich eggs, hens, and chicks:

  • Vitamin A
    • Early mortality;
    • Failure to develop a healthy circulatory system;
    • Abnormalities of the kidneys, eyes, and skeleton;
    • Marked reduction in egg production;
    • Increased time between clutches;
    • Low hatchability; and
    • Higher incidence of malpositioned embryos.
  • Vitamin D
    • Low hatchability;
    • Late embryonic mortality;
    • Shortened upper mandible in embryo;
    • Increased production of thin shells or shell-less eggs;
    • Low egg production; and
    • Increased incidence of malposition embryos.
  • Vitamin E
    • Early embryonic mortality or circulatory failure;
    • Late mortality;
    • Hemorrhages and disturbances in the circulatory system;
    • The high mortality of chicks soon after hatch;
    • Low hatchability; and
    • Prolonged deficiency in males causes testicular degeneration.
  • Thiamin (B1):
    • Atrophy of genital organs, more pronounced in the testes than in the ovaries;
    • High embryonic mortality during hatching with no specific signs; and
    • Embryos that hatch will develop polyneuritis.
  • Riboflavin (B2):
    • High mortality with peaks early, middle, and late during incubation;
    • Embryos exhibit dwarfing, altered limb and mandible development, edema, defect in the down development (clubbed down);
    • Low hatchability; and
    • Incidence of increased size and fat content in the liver in the hen.
  • Pyridoxine (B6):
    • Decreased egg production and
    • Decreased hatchability.
  • Folic Acid:
    • Late embryonic mortality;
    • Bending of the tibiotarsus;
    • Defects of the mandible and deformed beaks;
    • Syndactyly;
    • Reduced hatchability; and
    • Twisted hocks.
  • Pantothenic Acid:
    • Very late mortality without characteristic signs;
    • Low hatchability;
    • Very weak chicks at hatch;
    • No effect on egg production; and
    • Late embryonic mortality.
  • Manganese:
    • Shortened bones;
    • Chondrodystrophy;
    • Skull deformities, parrot beak;
    • Low egg production;
    • Reduced eggshell strength; and
    • Increased incidence of thin-shelled and shell-less eggs.
  • Zinc:
    • Embryos exhibit skeletal deformities involving the head, limbs, and vertebrae faulty spine and limb development, caudal part of trunk absent, small eyes, limbs missing;
    • Chicks that hatch are weak, have difficulty standing, have an accelerated respiratory rate, and show labored breathing; and
    • Decreased egg production.
  • Iodine:
    • Enlarged thyroid gland;
    • Incomplete closure of navel;
    • Prolonged incubation time;
    • Decreased hatchability; and
    • Decreased egg production.
  • Selenium Deficiency:
    • Low egg production and
    • Very low hatchability.
  • Selenium Excess:
    • Reduced egg production;
    • Reduced hatchability; and
    • Embryonic abnormalities.

The diet of an ostrich varies based on whether they are in the wild (and where they are located regionally), or they are being raised for commercial purposes on a farm.  Additionally, diets change — both in how often the birds need to be fed, and the type of food they need — for chicks, developing ostriches, and ostriches used for breeding.

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