TINAMOU, the name given in Guiana to a certain bird, as stated in 1741 by P. Barrère (France équinoxiale, p. 138), from whom it was taken and used in a more general sense by Buffon (Hist. nat. oiseaux, iv. 502). In 1783 J. Latham (Synopsis, ii. 724) adopted it as English, and in 1790 (Index, ii. 633) Latinized it Tinamus, as the name of a new and distinct genus. The “Tinamou” of Barrère has been identified with the “Macucagua” described and figured by Marcgrav in 1648, and is the Tinamus major of modern authors.
Buffon and his successors saw that the Tinamous, though passing among the European colonists of South America as “Partridges,” could not be associated with those birds, and Latham's step, above mentioned, was generally approved. The genus he had founded was usually placed among the Gallinae, and by many writers was held to be allied to the bustards, which, it must be remembered, were then thought to be “struthious.” Indeed the likeness of the Tinamou's bill to that of the Rhea (q.v.) was remarked in 1811 by Illiger. On the other hand L'Herminier in 1827 saw features in the Tinamou's sternum that in his judgment linked the bird to the Rallidae. In 1830 J. Wagler (Nat. Syst. Amphibien, &c., p. 127) placed the Tinamous in the same order as the ostrich and its allies; and, though he did this on very insufficient grounds, his assignment has turned out to be not far from the mark, as in 1862 the great affinity of these groups was shown by W. K. Parker's researches, which were afterwards printed in the Zoological Transactions (v. pp. 205–232, 236–238, pls. xxxix.–xli.), and was further substantiated by him in the Philosophical Transactions (1866, pp. 174–178, pl. xv.). Shortly after this T. H. Huxley in his often-quoted paper in the Zoological Proceedings (1867, pp. 425, 426) was enabled to place the whole matter in a clear light, urging that the Tinamous formed a very distinct group of birds which, though not to be removed from the Carinatae, presented so much resemblance to the Ratitae as to indicate them to be the bond of union between those two great divisions. The group from the resemblance of its palatal characters to those of the Emeu (q.v.), Dromaeus, he called Dromaeognathae, but it is now more usual to place them in a separate order, the Tinamiformes.
The Tinamous are comparatively insignificant in numbers. They are peculiar to the neotropical region—a few species finding their way into southern Mexico and none beyond. Some of them inhabit forests and others the more open country; but setting aside size (which in this group varies from that of a quail to that of a large common fowl) there is an unmistakable uniformity of appearance among them as a whole, so that almost anybody having seen one species of the group would always recognize another. Yet in minor characters there is considerable difference among them; and about sixty-four species are recognized, divided into the genera Tinamus, Nothocercus, Crypturus, Rhynchotus, Nothoprocta, Nothura, Taoniscus and Tinamotis.
Rufous Tinamou (Rhynchotus rufescens).
To the ordinary spectator Tinamous have much the look of partridges, but the more attentive observer will notice that their elongated bill, their small head and slender neck, clothed with very short feathers, give them a different air. The plumage is generally inconspicuous: some tint of brown, ranging from rufous to slaty, and often more or less closely barred with a darker shade or black, is the usual style of coloration; but some species are characterized by a white throat or a bay breast. The wings are short and rounded, and in some forms the feathers of the tail, which in all are hidden by their coverts, are soft. In bearing and gait the birds show some resemblance to their distant relatives the Ratitae, and A. D. Bartlett showed (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1868, p. 115, pl. xii.) that this is especially seen in the newly hatched young. He also noticed the still stronger Ratite character, that the male takes on himself the duty of incubation. The eggs are very remarkable objects, curiously unlike those of other birds; and their shell looks as if it were of highly-burnished metal or glazed porcelain, presenting also various colours, which seem to be constant in the particular species, from pale primrose to sage-green or light indigo, or from chocolate brown to pinkish orange. All who have eaten it declare the flesh of the Tinamou to have a most delicate taste, as it has a most inviting appearance, the pectoral muscles being semi-opaque. Of their habits not much has been told. Darwin (Journ. ch. iii.) has remarked upon the silliness they show in allowing themselves to be taken, and this is wholly in accordance with what W. K. Parker observes of their brain capacity and is an additional testimony to their low morphological rank. At least one species of Tinamou has bred not infrequently in confinement, and partly successful attempts to naturalize the species Rhynchotus rufescens have been made in England. (A. N.)
- Brisson and after him Linnaeus confounded this bird, which they had never seen, with the Trumpeter (q.v.).