The Call of the Tinamou

By Katrina Macht
February 13, 2004

Whistling wind, crackling leaves, chattering squirrels, squawking parrots, thunderous howler roars, insect cacophony. The forest is a symphony that delights the senses at every turn. Of all the sounds one can hear, nothing speaks to me more than the melancholy call of the tinamou. Dawn, dusk, midday, or dark of night, the tinamou's tremulous, flutelike whistle is unmistakable and is the memory I will carry with me when I leave this tropical island.

Secretive, solitary, ground-dwelling birds, tinamous are heard more often than they're seen, unless one is fortunate enough to travel to a forest like BCI, where they're protected from human predators. I feel particularly privileged this year. I've seen five on different trails deep inside the forest and I've heard them at numerous times of the day, everyday for the past three weeks. This gift from the forest makes the year's adventure all the more magical.

Each sighting came as an unexpected surprise. Rather than seeing them at dawn or dusk, when I most often hear the crepuscular forest dwellers, I stumbled upon my birds quite by accident on late morning walks. Twice I almost walked past the bird, it was so much a part of its surroundings; its cryptic shades of brown and gray blending into the dark, dense habitat of the forest floor. If it hadn't been foraging among the fallen leaves, seemingly unmindful of my presence, I might have missed it altogether. How different from the rare sightings on the mainland when, if they're seen at all they're usually hiding or walking quietly away into a tangle of vegetation.

Tinamous are not the flashy, colorful birds frequently associated with tropical forests, the toucans, trogons, or motmots I'm always on the lookout for as I wander the trails. Rather these are chunky, small-winged birds. Although they resemble grouse or partridges, they're nearest relatives are the flightless ostriches and rheas. Incapable of sustained flight for long distances, they live their lives roaming the forest floor, searching for fallen fruits, seeds, and the occasional arthropod. No, theirs is an inner beauty, revealed through their exquisite, long forlorn whistles and their ancient history. In fact, tinamous are one of the ancient birds; with known fossil records dating back 10 million years.

Heralding the end of a tropical day, a tinamou chorus in the evening twilight is an enchanting interlude. Why it happens is the source of great speculation among scientists who study them. Many think that, because they're solitary birds, the chorus is a signal to each other as to their whereabouts. Whatever the reason, the pleasure of hearing it thrills the senses. To hear one tinamou calling is deeply moving, a serenade of their sad songs defies description.

How can one begin to create an acoustic picture of such a wistful melody? Words cannot describe a lyrical composition so rich and varied in texture, pitch, and tone it's astonishing to think it's coming out of a bird. The tinamou is a soulful avian flutist, the composer of a haunting sonata that tells of all the sorrow of the world, yet all its beauty, too. I regret when each concert ends all too quickly, leaving me longing for yet another encore performance.

Whoever said the forest is a quiet place? Certainly, it is not. As I become more attuned to who's making the various squeaks, squawks, clicks, chatters, and whistles I find that I enjoy the sounds of the forest every bit as much as its feast of sights. None more than the call of the lonely tinamou.