Eastern South America is the home of two very remarkable and closely related birds known as Cariamas or Chuñias, the systematic position of which has given rise to much discussion and difference of opinion. They are large, long-legged, crested birds, having a considerable superficial resemblance to the African Secretary-Bird, and were formerly associated with it as aberrant members of the Falconiformes, but careful investigation of the osteology and anatomy of the soft parts has shown conclusively that this view cannot hold. They have also some apparent affinities with the Storks, but all things considered, they appear to find their closest relationship with the Cranes, Trumpeters, and Bustards, though well entitled to be ranked as a distinct family.
The larger of the two, which is known as the Crested Cariama (C. cristata), has a total length of about thirty-two inches, and is yellowish gray, with numerous narrow darker and lighter cross-bands, except on the abdomen, while the wings and tail are blackish brown with broad white cross-bars. The forehead is ornamented with a tuft of erect plumes three inches or more long, and there is also a full pendent crest hanging down the hinder neck. The bill is bright red, and the bare greenish blue skin surrounding the large dark yellow eyes gives it a peculiarly animated expression. The legs and feet are reddish. It is a native of the campos of the interior of Brazil, whence it extends into the open districts of Paraguay and the adjoining parts of Argentina. It lives among the high grasses of the campos, running away, it is said, in a stooping posture to avoid discovery when approached, and taking to wing with extreme reluctance and only when actually forced to do so. It is highly regarded by the inhabitants as a destroyer of snakes, being protected by law, but it is said to feed principally upon insects and caterpillars, though occasionally eating berries and other fleshy fruits, and rarely, it would seem, snakes and other reptiles. It builds a nest in low bushes and lays two roundish, spotted, Rail-like eggs. Its loud, screaming cry is frequently heard.
The other species, known as the Chuñia or Burmeister’s Cariama, has been made the type of a distinct genus (Chunga burmeisteri), and is found in northern Argentina. It is smaller than the other, being only twenty-eight inches long, darker colored, and with the frontal crest not more than an inch high. It frequents forest or bushy districts, spending the day in running about in the bush and roosting at night in high trees. Like the other species it has a loud, screaming voice which may be heard for a long distance, though when approached it becomes discreetly silent. The nest is placed in bushes, and the young birds are frequently taken when half fledged and soon take kindly to captivity.