For the Birds Radio Program: Toucans

Original Air Date: Feb. 12, 2001

Toucans turned out to be even more wonderful than Laura anticipated.

Audio missing


Before I went to Costa Rica, I studied the field guide, and expected to be a little excited when I saw my first toucan. Costa Rica has two large species of toucans: the Keel-billed Toucan, and a bigger, only slightly less colorful version called the Chestnut-mandibled [Channel-billed] Toucan. There are also close relatives with similar, huge beaks-the Fiery-billed Aracari, Collared Aracari, Emerald Toucanet, and Yellow-eared Toucanet. All of them look wonderfully strange and tropical–no wonder the Keel-billed Toucan has made Froot Loops such a favorite–but I don’t particularly like Froot Loops and thought the zoo toucans I’d seen were rather gaudy Hollywood-type birds lacking genuine loveliness. So I didn’t expect that I would be as thrilled, and moved, as I was when I saw toucans in the wild.

But the reason we travel rather than limiting our experiences of far away places to TV documentaries, books, and zoos is to see how reality stacks up with images and hype, and to see how well we ourselves fit in in new settings. I found myself surprised at my response to toucans in the wild. They were beautiful—tropically beautiful—with a rich and exotic vividness rather than the soft and more subtle beauty that so many northern birds exude. Toucans were more common, but harder to see, than I expected. We saw our first Keel-billed Toucans the first day of our birding tour, but had such a quick glimpse that I was left hungry for more. The shape in flight was easy to recognize–their huge beak seems to pull them along. But despite being so brilliant, they seemed to disappear the moment they landed in the lush tropical trees.

Toucans are closely related to woodpeckers, and are only found in the American tropics. Their primary food source is ripe fruit, which they pluck with the tip of their long beak, and then flip their heads back, tossing the fruit up, and gulp it down. Ornithologists believe the huge bill­ shape allows these heavy-bodied birds to perch on strong, thick branches even though the food they need is fruits that dangle from the slender tips of branches that couldn’t support their bodies. With their amazingly light but strong beak, they can reach, pull, and eat their meals from a distance.

If fruit is essential for toucans, it isn’t enough. To get protein in their diets, they also eat insects, spiders, lizards, snakes, and nestling birds and eggs. I’ve talked to birders who were horrified to follow a beautiful toucan in flight, straight to a nest where it snatched and ate all the nestlings. I was lucky enough to not see that.

Ecologically toucans fill the same niche in the New World that Hornbills fill in the Old World. Both groups of birds are colorful, have huge beaks, nest in cavities, and eat a lot of fruit along with a broad animal diet. But they aren’t at all related.

I’ll give Ogden Nash the last word on toucans. He wrote:

The toucan’s profile is prognathous,
Its person is a thing of bathos.
If even I can tell a toucan
I’m reasonably sure that you can.