- 47 species in the Neotropics
- DR personal total: 7 species (15%), 4 photo'd
Tinamous are a family of primitive, secretive Neotropical birds, most
of which are restricted to tropical lowlands in South America. In all
the places I've visited in Central and South America, it is a major
coup to just get a decent glimpse of wild tinamou. Rarely have I ever
pointed a camera at one, and this was my first successful result: an Undulated Tinamou
(left) foraging at the edge of the lodge clearing at Explorer's Inn,
southeastern Peru. It is the first tinamou I'd ever seen "out in the
open;" all my experiences with other species have been quick views of
birds running away or crossing a trail deep inside the dark forest
interior. Undulated Tinamou is, in fact, a very common and widespread
bird in the Amazon Basin as evidenced by its distinctive and easily
learned three-note whistle that is given throughout the day and is
heard in the background of many tapes of tropical birds. But seeing one
is a challenge. With patience, a good imitator might whistle one in to
a small party of very, very quiet birders, as Van Remsen once did for
us in an extremely remote region of the Amazon Basin.
it takes much patience, quiet, and luck. I have generally found my
tinamous when alone. Even the presence of one or two other people makes
them harder to find, because a small group is invariably noisier than a
lone tracker, no matter how much care is taken. There are still several
tinamou species that I've only heard but have not seen, and thus they
are not on my "life list."
Tinamous occur in pairs
or alone, but many species are very vocal. Some have sad whistles or
organ-like notes. Their calls can be heard at dawn or dusk for long
distances. There is a wonderful tape in the Hardy series of their
are not necessarily shy per se, but being terrestrial dwellers they run
to avoid predators (flight is unusual and short) and their habitat is
generally thick, dark, and dense. I've only been to one other location
where one came out to the edge of the forest. This Little Tinamou
(right) was enticed by grains of rice adjacent to the kitchen at Rio
Tigre Lodge on the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, to make an appearance.
Even then, though, it required a small flash to obtain photos.
outwardly a tinamou may resemble a tail-less quail or small grouse,
they are actually related to the flightless ratites (rheas, ostrich,
emu, etc.) and not to any of the "chickens" (I understand they are
tasty, though, and heavily hunted by local peoples; the only Great
Tinamou I've seen was freshly killed by a local hunter in Peru). This
puts them right up at the front of any taxonomic listing of world
birds. Tinamous are among the oldest families in the New World, with
fossils dating back ten million years. Their close relationship to
ratites has been confirmed through multiple analyses: molecular
analysis, palate structure, calcite orientation in eggshells, ontogeny,
musculature, metabolic physiology, and others (summarized in Cabot
1992). Tinamou eggs are particularly lovely, being highly glossed like
porcelain and colored green, turquoise, purple, or wine red.
southern South America, and especially Argentina or Chile where I
understand that there are species of tinamou in more open country. This
is also true in the grasslands of southern Brazil. In Emas National
Park, one driving or walking the red-dirt roads through the grasslands
is likely to see at least one tinamou each day. Small-billed Tinamou
(below) is perhaps most common — shown here dashing across such a road.
Some of the nothuras (five species in genus Nothura)
are open-country species and reasonable common in the southern third of
South America. Others, though, are declining. One of these is Lesser Nothura
(right). According to Birdlife International, "rapid and extensive
conversion of cerrado grasslands is presumably causing a rapid
population reduction in this small tinamou. The population is now
likely to be small and fragmented over a large range, and the species
therefore qualifies as Vulnerable." This individual at Emas NP was
thinking of crossing the road late in the afternoon, but then saw us.
It stayed at the road edge only briefly before running back into the
The species taxonomy of tinamous is not the
subject of much controversy. The lists in Clements (1991) and Cabot
(1992) are the same (though slightly different arrangements), and
nothing much has changed since then. Yet because most tinamous are hard
to see, and because South American field guides have been lacking for
many areas (although now that is changing), tinamous can be difficult
to identify. I suspect that it takes some field experience to get it
all right. I saw a smallish, dark, red-legged tinamou in the forest
along the Javarí River of northeast Peru back in 1975 that I
struggled to identify from Meyer de Schauensee (1970) then, and others
since. I was just checking my notes today, and the portraits & text
on the tinamous in Cabot (1992), and it still looks like the initial
impression — Cinereous Tinamou Crypturellus cinereus — was correct. But here I am 25 years later and still a bit uncertain. . . .
Tinamous are like that.
Photos: The Undulated Tinamou Crypturellus undulatus was taken with a small flash at Explorer's Inn, Tambopata Nature Reserve, Peru, in June 1987. The Little Tinamou C. soui was at Rio Tigre Lodge, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 26 Dec 2007. The Small-billed Tinamou C. parvirostris was at Emas NP, Brazil, on 25 July 2010, and the photos of Lesser Nothura Nothura undulatus was taken there on 28 July 2010. Photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.
There is no "family book" per se, but an excellent introduction to the
family, with striking photos (although still mostly from Chile &
Argentina!), is Cabot (1992).
Cabot, J. 1992. Family Tinamidae (Tinamous) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check-List. 4th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.
Meyer de Schauensee, R. 1970. A Guide to the Birds of South America. Livingston Publ., Wynnewood, PA.