What is a Tinamou?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee
Veterinarian with a puppy
Veterinarian with a puppy

The tinamou is a small, largely ground-dwelling bird that closely resembles a partridge. Native to South and Central America, there are around 50 individual species of tinamous within the family. Throughout the different tinamou species, birds range in size from 8 to 20 inches (about 20 to 53 cm) and have similarly built bodies. Species can be found throughout the grasslands, thickets, woodlands, and savannas at almost all elevations, each species with its unique niche.

Members of the tinamou family have rounded bodies, squat and compact. Their build makes flight difficult and ungainly, and it can only be maintained for short distances. Therefore, their main defense against predators is either running or freezing in place, relying on their camouflaged plumage to disguise them. The camouflage of the tinamou works so well that it can be a difficult bird for humans to spot against the dense foliage it tends to prefer.

Even though the tinamou resembles a chicken or a partridge, it is more closely related to other ground-dwelling birds such as the ostrich or the rhea. Tinamous are one of the oldest birds in the Americas, and fossil records indicate they have been thriving for tens of millions of years. Attempts have been made to introduce this hardy, ancient bird to other areas of the world, but these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Many varieties, such as the red-winged tinamou, have been successfully bred and raised in captivity.

The breeding periods of tinamous differ among species, but across the family it is the male bird that not only sits on the eggs after they have been laid but protects the young birds after they hatch. Female birds can take multiple partners in a single season, and lay eggs in the nests of more than one male. Chicks develop quickly and are capable of finding their own food within days of hatching from their brightly colored eggs. When first hatching, chicks are capable of flight; this is a characteristic they gradually lose as they mature. Brood sizes also vary among species, and some can have up to a dozen eggs in a single nest.

The diets of tinamous are wide and varied, and include insects and worms in the warmer summer months, and roots and seeds in the winter. Birds are typically active during the day, and those who live in colder areas will dig through the snow to find food in the winter. Tinamous themselves are often hunted as game birds.

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    • Veterinarian with a puppy
      Veterinarian with a puppy