Amica's World: How a Giant Bird Came into Our Heart and Home

Amica's World: How a Giant Bird Came into Our Heart and Home


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The true story of the friendship between a human family and a large, flightless bird.

Amica is a rhea—a flightless bird in the ratite family, related to ostriches, emus, and kiwis. Amica was adopted as a young chick and in turn quickly adopted mother and son Meadow and Washo Shadowhawk as his flock and made himself at home in their living room.

Now an adult, Amica stands nearly six feet tall, and has a six-foot wingspan. By day he roams the backyard, exploring, running, and building nests, along with his friends the chickens and the dog. At night, he watches television and sleeps in the living room with his friend the cat.

What's it like living with a rhea? As you'll discover in the words and photos in this book, it is never boring, and requires massive sacrifices. Rheas, which are typically hunted or raised as livestock, are highly intelligent and expressive, with a humanlike range of emotions. Amica’s extraordinary story shows the powerful and surprising connections that can be forged between humans and animals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781621062820
Publisher: Microcosm Publishing
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 14 Years

About the Author

Washo Shadowhawk has been working with and helping animals from a very young age. At the age of 14 Dr. Jane Goodall recognized his work doing outreach to zoo primates and nominated him for the IDA Youth Guardian Award, which he won. He was featured on the Animal Planet movie “Jane Goodall’s Heroes” as one of her heroes and was the recipient of the Gloria Barron Prize for young heroes. He lives in Beaverton, Oregon where he is a photographer and runs a rescue operation for exotic reptiles and birds.

Meadow Shadowhawk is Washo’s mother. She has a background as a veterinarian technician and also enjoys working with animals. She shares Washo’s love of nature and has always supported his love of animals.

Dr. Jane Goodall is the world's preeminent primatologist, the founder of the nonprofit Roots & Shoots global youth-led community action program, and the author of numerous books, including Reason for Hope.

Read an Excerpt


This is the story of how our family raised Amica in our home. The name Amica is pronounced ah-MEEK-uh and is the Latin word for "friend." Amica is a rhea — a large, flightless bird.

Living with Amica changed our life. But we do not recommend raising a rhea in your own home. As you will see, it requires many sacrifices and accommodations, and can be dangerous to both you and the animal if precautions are not taken. We are sharing our story because we want to show you what we have learned about this amazing bird.

One of the challenges we experienced was photographing Amica. We had a quality DSLR camera that took high resolution photos in low light, but had to take many photos with our phones, as the large camera proved too distracting for Amica to behave in his usual manner. He is very curious and aware of anything. If he finds anything unusual he may spend hours investigating it. We have lost many great photo opportunities to this curiosity.


Rheas are part of a diverse group of flightless birds known as ratites. While the ostrich and emu are perhaps the most widely known ratites, the group ranges from the chicken-sized kiwi to the now-extinct, twelve-foot tall, five-hundred-pound giant moa.

Although species of ratites can be found on several continents throughout the world, not much is known about them. If you were to ask most people for a fact about an ostrich or emu, they would most likely tell you something like, "they bury their heads in the sand when they become frightened" which is not true. After spending a little over a year with a live ratite, it seems the few "facts" that we humans thought we knew may not be accurate.

So why do we know so little about these animals? Perhaps one reason is that due to the shy nature of ratites, it can be difficult for researchers in the field to get close enough to the birds to study their behavior. Another issue could be that since most ratites have developed very specific adaptations to allow them to survive in their natural habitats, they cannot thrive outside of the environment they were designed for. For example, the ostrich, designed for the open and arid land of the African savannas, does not do well in damper climates where their two-toed feet cannot support their heavy bodies in the mud. In contrast, the cassowary, which is native to the humid rainforests of New Guinea, could not survive in drier climates without access to their primary diet of fungi and fruit.

One exception to this fragility among ratites is the rhea. Native to South America and ranging from Brazil to Argentina, the rhea has been able to adapt to a wide range of environments. In relation to other ratites, the rhea's median size and weight seem to have made it by far the most adaptable species. According to current records, wild rheas stand about five feet tall and can weigh up to 90 pounds (although ours has surpassed those numbers in both height and weight). They have three toes on each foot, which provides better traction and support, as well as plumage that covers most of their body, providing insulation and allowing them to thrive in colder climates than other ratites.


A common cause of death for all ratites is being hunted or harvested for food by humans. Ostrich and emu meat, especially as jerky, is a popular exotic meat, and unfortunately, since rheas are smaller and hardier, they have proven to be an even more attractive source of ratite meat.

Wild rheas that live in their native habitat have a very high mortality rate in their first year. In the first three months of their life, rhea chicks are extremely delicate — especially their legs, which are still developing. A main tendon in the leg has to set in place within the knee joint. If the bird falls or trips in these first few months, the tendon can pop out of place and the legs can become permanently damaged. Since ratites are flightless birds, they rely on their legs as other birds rely on their wings. Rhea chicks have been observed to walk over a mile a day, and it is by walking and running that the chicks develop their bodies properly. In the wild, when a chick injures a leg it cannot run with the others or forage for food. Unable to move, if they manage to not be eaten by a predator, they slowly starve to death.

Rheas that survive to adulthood face another danger. The gaucho people of South America have a long-standing tradition of hunting rheas for both food and sport. As a result, rheas are now rated as a threatened species and only those living outside of their native land have been known to prosper. Most rheas are now seen as livestock animals and are raised in large flocks only to be slaughtered once they reach the desired size. However, every now and then a few rheas escape from the meat farms and have managed to thrive in the foreign wilderness. One such example took place in the late 1990s in northeastern Germany. A small number of rheas escaped from an exotic meat farm in Lubeck and have since adapted and reproduced into a flock of well over a hundred living throughout the eastern countryside.

Although not as common or profitable as the meat farms, there are a few less depressing examples of humans' relationship with rheas. Recently, a few ranches in Oregon and New Mexico have discovered that rheas can provide more commodities than just meat. Their eggs, which are much larger and thicker than that of a chicken, can be eaten, or the shells can be blown out and used for carving and other works of art. Rhea feathers are unique and come in a variety of different sizes and colors making them ideal for a multitude of uses (rheas shed their feathers constantly).

Perhaps the best examples of non-food-related rhea domestication have come from England. Prior to caring for our own rhea, the best sources of information were found from ranches throughout England that had taken a different approach to raising these birds. They were treated similarly to the way some of us treat chickens, more like pets and less like food. Most rheas had regular human interaction and were often handled and carried around not long after hatching. Some of the older birds were even used in the same manner as we use goats. The rheas were transported in horse trailers to overgrown farmland and were released in an enclosed area. With the birds' voracious appetite, the area was quickly cleared out enough that the farmers could finish the job with a lot less work. The rheas benefited, the farmers benefited, and the only things that were eaten were the weeds. These are just a few examples of the many ways humans could benefit from better understanding these animals.

After researching ratites and preparing to take on the task of caring for one, we knew it would be a unique journey. However, we had expected that our knowledge and experience of rehabilitating and caring for a variety of animals throughout the years would provide us with most of the tools necessary for the task. Together, our family has cared for not only wild and exotic birds, but horses, llamas, reptiles, various kinds of small mammals, as well as your more common dogs and cats. How different could one ratite be?

Apparently, very different.

This book is in no way intended as a how-to guide for raising a rhea. Ratites are completely unlike any cat, dog, horse, or other type of bird. Amica stands six feet tall and can open doors and drawers, so we have had to "rhea-proof" our house and yard to keep him as well as others safe.

When we first brought Amica home everyone believed he was a female (though it is very difficult to determine at this age) so we gave him a feminine name. After six months it became obvious that he was, in fact, a male. He was already accustomed to his name and he was still our "friend" so we did not change it.

Within the last year and a half that Amica has lived with us, he has shown more recognizable personality and intelligence than we have ever personally witnessed from an animal. But while Amica has enriched our lives in many ways, the rare experience of caring for such an animal doesn't come without compromise.

After getting through the nerve-racking three-month delicate phase of infancy, he transitioned into puberty. For a bird, this includes establishing pecking order within the flock by fighting for dominancy. At this point, being considered by a rhea to be part of the flock isn't such a good thing. For several months, Amica's behavior was very similar to that of the velociraptors from Jurassic Park — clearly not the ideal family pet. Eventually, that phase passed as well, leaving us with a few battle scars. Now, Amica spends most of his energy digging nests in the backyard as well as being much more demanding of our company.

While this animal takes a great deal of attention, patience, space, and money, he gives back by providing an insight into the complex behavior of these fascinating creatures that most people are not even familiar with, and if they are, they think of them as livestock.


Excerpted from "Amica's World"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Washo and Meadow Shadowhawk.
Excerpted by permission of Microcosm Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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