South American bird heading for market

by Connie Bagshaw
Staff writer

Maybe tinamou doesn't immediately come to mind as you scan the menu of your favourite eatery, looking for something new to try. But Canadians may soon be feasting on the tender relative of the ostrich and emu, thanks to a team of UBC researchers.

Animal Science Prof. Kim Cheng has been leading the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences' work in developing the tinamou, a native of Chile, for commercial production since 1992 and may be within a year of bringing the new poultry to market.

"We've successfully bred the bird in captivity and found a suitable diet and housing for it," Cheng said. "Once we find a farm site to start production, tinamou could be available within months."

Lower in fat and higher in protein than chicken, the bird has long been prized in South America for its tender white breast meat and mild flavour. Its tenderness is the result of spending most of its time on the ground, flying only if it can't find a hiding spot when startled.

With close to 2,000 birds, UBC has the largest flock of tinamou in North America. They're the descendants of a few birds that originally arrived in the U.S. in 1972. Plans to introduce them as game birds into California, Oregon and Washington states were abandoned for lack of environmental impact studies.

Although the tinamou may live five years or longer in the wild, it reaches its mature weight of about half a kilogram at between 12 and 16 weeks in captivity under natural lighting conditions.

Master's student Anthony Yuen has been analyzing post-mortem muscle characteristics of the bird, including the degree of acidity, or pH values, and sugar levels -- factors which affect the meat's ultimate tenderness. His preliminary findings indicate that 13 weeks is the optimum processing age. Some of B.C.'s finest chefs seem to agree.

"We've sent both young and old birds to several local restaurants, including the Four Seasons Hotel and Bishop's, and have received mixed responses," Cheng said. "Feedback on the younger birds was good. Apparently they make a nice appetizer when the breast meat is battered and flash fried. Older birds ended up in the stew pot with tomatoes and garlic."

Tinamou eggs are edible and similar to a chicken's in flavour, but it's their glossy, dark chocolate-coloured shells that are most valued, especially by the crafters of decorated eggs. On average, a tinamou hen will lay two eggs a week, from mid-March to September, each one weighing about 40 grams.

Wild, trapped tinamou were marketed as the South American quail in Europe in the late 1800s until they became rare in the wild. Cheng hopes that a commercial flock of 1,000 breeding hens will be established for production this year.

"In a country as rich and industrialized as Canada, it's hard to remember that we need more variety in our diet," he said. "We rely heavily on chicken and turkey as a food source, and it's not healthy to depend on any one species so much."

The tinamou research project is supported by the provincial Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Demonstration of Agricultural Technology and Economics Projects, the San Rafael Foundation and the Industrial Research Assistantship Program.