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Tropical Toucans
by Les Beletsky

August 1998

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Excerpted from: Costa Rica: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide, Academic Press, 1998.


No other word fits them - toucans are spectacular animals. Their shape, brilliant coloring, and tropical quintessence make them one of the most popular "poster animals" for the tropical forests of the Americas and one most visitors want to see. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that the logos of several conservation organizations and tour companies feature toucans. The toucan family, Ramphastidae, is classified with the woodpeckers, and contains about 40 species - the toucans and the usually smaller toucanets and aracaris (AH-rah-SAH-reez); all are restricted to the American tropics. Six species occur in Costa Rica.

The first sighting of toucans in the wild is always exhilarating - the large size of the bird, the bright colors, the enormous, almost cartoonish bill. Toucans are usually first noticed flying from treetop to treetop in small groups. Your eyes immediately lock onto the flight silhouette; something is different here! As one observer put it, it looks as if the bird is following its own bill in flight (J. C. Kricher 1989). The effect of the bill seeming to lead the bird is that toucans appear unbalanced while flying. The bird's most distinguishing feature - its colorful, disproportionately large bill - is actually light, mostly hollow, and used for cutting down and manipulating the diet staple, tree fruit.


Ecology & Behavior. Toucans are gregarious forest birds, usually observed in flocks of 3 to 12. They follow each other in strings from one tree to another, usually staying in the high canopy (a toucan only occasionally flies down to feed at shrubs, or to pluck a snake or a lizard from the forest floor). The birds are playful, grasping each other's bills in apparent contests, and tossing fruit to each other. Toucans are primarily fruit-eaters, preferring the darkest, so ripest, fruit. Their long bill allows them to perch on heavier, stable branches and reach a distance for hanging fruits. They snip the fruit off, hold it at the tip of the bill, and then, with a forward flip of the head, toss the fruit into the air and into their throats. (Seems, we humans think, an inefficient eating method, but the toucans do quite nicely with it.) Toucans also increase their protein intake by consuming the occasional insect, spider, or small reptile, or even bird eggs or nestlings. (I will never forget my surprise when I lifted my binoculars to a toucan high up in an Argentine tree and watched it snatch in its bill a big black tarantula, then hit its bill against a heavy branch, the better to knock the spider senseless, then gulp it down.) Sometimes individual fruit trees are defended by a mated toucan pair from other toucans or from other frugivorous birds - defended by threat displays and even, against other toucans, by bill clashes. CHESTNUT-MANDIBLED TOUCANS , the largest in Costa Rica, may "parasitize" the slightly smaller KEEL-BILLED TOUCAN: the larger bird follows the smaller, then chases the smaller away after it succeeds at locating a fruit-filled tree.

Breeding. Breeding is during the dry season. Toucans nest (and some sleep) in tree cavities, either natural ones or those hollowed out by woodpeckers, in either live or dead trees. Nests can be any height above the ground, up to 30 meters (100 ft) or more. Both sexes incubate and feed the 2 to 4 young. Toucans are apparently monogamous. Some species, such as the COLLARED ARACARI, seem to breed cooperatively; that is, other family members, in addition to the mother and father, help raise the young in a single nest.

Ecological interactions. Small fruit seeds pass unharmed through toucan digestive tracts and large seeds are regurgitated, also unharmed. Thus, these frugivores aid in the dispersal of tree seeds, and, together with other fruit-eaters, are responsible for the positions of some forest trees. In other words, many forest trees grow not where a parent tree drops its seeds, but where frugivorous birds do so.


Toucans are commonly known in many areas of the Neotropics as "Dios te de," (God gives it to you), apparently because the three-syllable call of the CHESTNUT-MANDIBLED TOUCAN sounds like this expression. Toucan feathers have long been used as ornaments. Alfred Russell Wallace, co-formulator with Darwin of theory of evolution, visited South America from 1848 to 1852, noting in his journals that dancers in Brazilian villages commonly wore hats with red and yellow toucan feathers.


Toucans are common residents in the various regions in which they occur, except where there is extensive deforestation. None of the family are currently threatened in Costa Rica. Some toucans, e.g., the CHESTNUT-MANDIBLED, have suffered substantial population declines in heavily deforested areas of Central America, for instance, in some regions of Panama. Also, some toucan species may be scarce locally due to hunting. Several toucans, including the KEEL-BILLED, are CITES listed but, rather than being immediately threatened, they are listed because they are considered "look-alikes" of threatened species, and so they need to be monitored during international trade.

This is an excerpt from the author's upcoming Costa Rica: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide, (Academic Press, 1998). Contact the author via email at Les also wrote the article on Conservation in Costa Rica and Tropical Tanagers.



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