TALK ABOUT TOUCANS.
You have to admit: A toucan's bill is truly amazing to see. And how can the poor bird fly with such a super-sized snoot? What that bill is good for--and what it isn't--may surprise you.
FINDING A FRIEND
If seeing one toucan is amazing, wouldn't it be awesome to spy a whole flock of them? The colorful patches on their bills, skin, and feathers help them see each other and stick together. The colors on this keel-billed toucan's bill (see photo) may look like a flag waving in the trees. The "flag" probably tells other keel-billed toucans, "Here I am--follow me."
HOW MANY, HOW BIG?
There are about 40 species (kinds) of toucans. Crow-sized toco toucans are the largest ones. Some of the smaller toucans are called toucanets and aracaris (ar-uh-SAR-eez). Imagine a robin with a big bill--that's about the size of a small toucanet.
A toucan's bill looks so big and heavy, you might wonder how the bird can even lift its head. But the bill is full of air, and that makes it much lighter than it looks. Many thin bones crisscross inside the bill, making it quite strong.
FRUIT, NOT FROOT
A wild toucan never eats Froot Loops--it goes for real fruit, as the keel-billed toucan at right is doing. But it won't pass up insects, frogs, or other little creatures. Its long bill also helps it reach faraway food.
A toucan's big bill makes it tricky for the bird to get food to its throat. It usually holds the food in the tip of its bill, then tosses its head back while letting go of the food. The food then drops to where the bird can swallow it. Sometimes a toucan even tosses its food up and catches it before swallowing it whole.
The toco toucan below shows how it eats an egg by smashing it at the back of its bill.
Toucans nest and rest in tree holes, but they can't make the holes the way their woodpecker cousins do. Toucans' big bills aren't the right shape for pecking, and they're not sharp or strong enough to chop through trunks. The birds have to look for old woodpecker holes or other hollow spots in trees instead.
Do those big bills help toucans make loud noises? Their voices are quite loud, but the noise doesn't have anything to do with the size of their bills. As with other birds, the sound is made in their voice boxes. Sometimes toucans sound like frogs croaking: Rruk-rruk-rruk rrruk!
FINDING A MATE
When it's time to find a mate or a nest hole, a big bill is a useful toucan tool. Sometimes rivals have fierce bill-fights. One may even punch holes in a rival's bill, dent it, or break the tip!
But when toucans grab their mates' bills or clack bills with each other, they aren't fighting. It's their way of saying, "We belong together." They also use their bills to smooth each other's feathers and to pass food back and forth.
BILLS AND BABIES
A female toucan lays between two and four eggs. When the babies are newly hatched, Mom and Dad spit up food into the babies' flat, funny-looking bills. Both the adults and young spit out fruit pits on the nest floor, but they don't seem to mind the sticky mess!
The sulphur-breasted toucan babies on the branch above seem so-o-o curious about the amazing sights around them. Soon they'll try short flights with their stubby wings. It will be a few more months before their bills are full size.
Toucans don't seem to be slowed down by their tremendous bills. And the big bills don't make them lose their balance, either. The birds are strong fliers (above right)--and fast too.
TOUCANS AT HOME
Toucans are not endangered, but people have destroyed many of the rainforests where they once lived. Now other people are working hard to save the forests. That helps many plants and animals--including the toucans.
Wild toucans are naturally curious and playful. The bird below often comes
right to a yard to play in the sprinkler!
WHY THE BIG BILL?
Scientists can't agree on all the reasons toucans have such big bills. So, who can possibly know what they're really for? Only a toucan can!
Rangers: Your pet store may sell toucans. But it's not a good idea to keep one in your house. Budgies and some other small birds make better indoor pets. For more about pet birds, see pages 32-35. --Ranger Rick
Orange area shows where toucans live.