Birds – The Tinamous

THE  New World, from the southern portions of Mexico to the extremity of South America, is the home of a remarkable group of land birds known as Tinamous (Tinamoos). They have a strong superficial resemblance to the game-birds, and in fact are usually called Partridges in the countries where they live, and for a long time were supposed by ornithologists to be related to the game-birds, but comparatively recent studies have settled the fact that there is little or no real relationship between them. They have compact bodies, and rather short stout legs, while the head is small, the mouth split to under the eyes, and the neck rather long and slender. The wings are short and rounded and the tail-feathers short, or even altogether absent. In general the color of the plumage is deep yellowish or brownish, marked above with dark brown and black bars, and interspersed among the feathers are numerous powder-downs, or feathers which are continually breaking off the tips into a fine powder-like substance. The Tinamous have quite a well-developed keel to the breast-bone but possess only limited powers of flight. They are, however, very rapid runners and can rarely be forced to take to wing. When they do, they may fly for one or two thousand yards, and may repeat flights of this distance once or twice, but then their endurance fails and they can fly no more. Hudson, writing of their flight, says: ” The bird rises up when almost trodden upon, rushing into the air with a noise and violence that fill one with astonishment. It continues to rise at a decreasing angle for fifty or sixty yards, then gradually nearing the earth,till, when it has got to a distance of two or three hundred yards, the violent action of the wing ceases, and the bird glides along close to the earth for some distance,and either drops down or renews its flight. The Tinamou starts forward with such amazing energy until this is expended and the moment of gliding comes, that the flight is just as ungovernable to the bird as the motion of a brakeless engine,rushing along at full speed, would be to the driver. The bird knows the danger to which this peculiar character of its flight exposes it so well that it is careful to fly only to that side where it sees a clear course. It is sometimes, however,compelled to take wing suddenly, without considering the obstacles in its path.

In the course of a short ride of ten miles, during which several birds sprang up before me, I have seen some of these Tinamous dash themselves to death against a fence close to the path, the height of which they had evidently misjudged. I have also seen a bird fly blindly against the wall of a house, killing itself instantly.” He also mentions once riding over the pampas in the face of a violent wind, when a bird was startled from under the feet of his horse. “The bird flew up into the air vertically, and, beating its wings violently, and with a swiftness far exceeding its ordinary flight, continued to ascend until it reached a vast height, then came down again, whirling round and round, striking the earth a very few yards from the spot where it rose, and crushing itself to a pulp by the tremendous force of the fall.” The explanation was that the strong wind had directed the flight upward with a force that the bird could not control, until it was exhausted and fell.

Some of the Tinamous inhabit open, grassy country, and depend much for safety in concealment among the grasses which they closely resemble in color, while others are quite as distinctly forest birds. They subsist largely upon seeds and berries, and they have a very distinct and flute-like song. They are, how-ever, looked upon as rather stupid birds, some of the species being very tame, often coming around the houses, when they are killed with a stick, whip, or stone. They are often caught by a horseman riding around them in a decreasing spiral, or even picked up with a noose on a pole. The fact that they are esteemed as food combined with their stupidity and confiding disposition have brought about their extermination in certain localities. They are rather solitary in their habits, although several may usually be found within a short distance of one another, and occasionally they are found in coveys of a dozen or more. The nest is simply a hollow scratched by the birds at the base of a tussock of grass, a thistle, or low bush, and slightly lined with grasses, feathers, and dry leaves. The eggs are among the most remarkable produced by any living bird. They vary in number in the different species from five to eight to twelve or sixteen, or possibly when of the latter number, one or more females may lay in the same nest. They are elliptical in shape, and have the shell polished until it appears like a piece of highly burnished metal or glazed porcelain. The color, which seems to be constant for particular species, is very variable, ranging from “pale primrose to sage-green or light indigo, or from chocolate–brown to pinkish-orange.” The minute structure of the egg-shell has been studied by a German investigator with the result that they are shown to resemble the eggs of the Kiwi of New Zealand most closely. The male parent is said to perform the duty of incubation, and the young are very soon able to care for themselves.

Taking everything into account it appears that the Tinamous are a sort of connecting link between the typical flying birds and the so-called flightless birds, or those that are destitute of a keel to the breast-bone. They possess characters undoubtedly relating them to each of these great groups, but they are perhaps best placed among the Ratite birds, immediately succeeding the Ostriches, Cassowaries, etc. About forty species of Tinamous are known, ranging in size from the Little Tinamou of Brazil and Paraguay, which is only six inches in length, to the Rufous or Great Tinamou (Rhynchotus Rufescens) of Brazil and Argentina, which is fourteen inches long. They are divisible into two quite well marked groups, according to the presence or absence of a distinct hind toe.