• Ron Snell

Sadly, This is Everything I Know About Toucans.

Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan

One thing I love about living in Costa Rica is the toucans. In fact, the toucan's raucous caw is what called us to our property. We got the cawl, as a preacher would say.

It’s a real treat to live where even I can accurately identify at least one bird. But of course it’s not that simple. With birds, it never is.

So it turns out that there are six species of toucans and I almost don’t know which is which except that I know some are bigger and some are smaller. Then again there are also bigger and smaller people with longer and shorter noses, so what's the big deal?

Here are the species you can find in Costa Rica: keel-billed, chestnut-mandibled, emerald toucanet, collared aracari, fiery-billed aracari, and yellow-eared toucanet. Did you know toucans have ears? Much less yellow ears? This is getting fascinating.

I’ll just describe one for now. The chestnut-mandibled toucan is the largest in Costa Rica. The lower portion of its bill, the mandible, is…wait for it…chestnut colored and the upper portion is bright yellow. Its body is mostly black with a yellow bib. So the next time you see one of those, instead of posting on Facebook or Instagram that you saw a toucan, you can say with some confidence that you saw a “chestnut-mandibled toucan.” That precision will stun any older Brits reading your post.

They also have a distinctive "caw, caw, caw" that you'll come to recognize to the amazement of your friends. Being able to identify something you can't see is even more impressive than having to see it first.

All toucans’ diets are mostly fleshy fruits but they occasionally supplement their diet with eggs, small reptiles, insects, just-hatched baby birds and fruit loops. I think it’s interesting that people say their large bills are so they can reach deeply into tree holes in search of food. Like, are they looking for fleshy papayas and mangos and bananas deep in tree holes? Also, once their bill is deep in a little hole, how do they open it? Have you ever tried opening a pair of needle-nosed pliers in a small pipe? Clearly I’m a little skeptical that the bill is for reaching into deep holes in trees.

Other writers say they play with their long bills, having mock sword fights and throwing bits of food at each other. I’m not saying I believe it, just that I read it somewhere. My theory is that the bill is for decoration, but I have nothing to support it except my observation that it’s pretty.

We do know that the bill is mostly hollow or they’d get a heck of a neck ache flying around with their head hanging down. And we know they don’t play nicely with other birds and are generally considered big-mouthed bullies. If you put food out for the birds, the toucans will eventually chase everyone else away. My sister had a pet toucan fifty years ago and it thought nothing of parking on a low branch over the sidewalk and whacking the top of our heads. It had no idea how often we considered eating it.

Although it’s a little hard to believe, males do manage to attract females with that raucous voice of theirs, even though I guarantee it wouldn’t work on me. When someone referred to it as “shrieking,” I could so relate. I’d rather be sleeping that early in the morning. They mate and remain together throughout the nesting season, foraging and parenting as a team, feeding each other fresh fruit and preening each others’ feathers. Let’s face it, with bills that long, it’d be tough to preen your own feathers. Turn your head around and all you can preen is the very end of your tail.

Toucans always nest in tree holes and lay two to four eggs. It takes less than three weeks for the babies to hatch, blind and naked and uuuuuuuuggglllyyyyyy. Then they stick around for six more weeks until their bills are fully formed. Once that happens, they’ve got to move out because finances are tight. There are just too many bills.

Moms have two or three clutches a year and if you want to know if they keep the same mates, you’ll have to do original research. There’s nothing like sitting on ant nests for a year trying to decide if that’s the same guy she brought home the last time. Apparently there haven’t been any ornithologists curious enough.

Toucans aren’t just decorative. The seeds they ingest pass right through them unharmed, landing widely scattered and spreading the fruit trees around. If ever one drops a load on your car or hat, call out a cheerful thank you instead of what you would normally be more inclined to say.

So now you know everything I know about toucans. Please comment if you have further insights or feel that I have misrepresented them. I observe several of them every morning from my patio. I can pretty much set my watch to one big fella, whom I will now check for that chestnut mandible, who flies noisily from a lower branch to a higher branch each morning at 4:50 with a whoo, whoo, whoo kind of wing noise . I actually think he sets his watch to me coming out on the patio and turning on my laptop. We're victims of circular time keeping, but we certainly enjoy each other’s company.

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