I decided to blog about the toucan today because even though I know what they look like, I know almost nothing else about them. Other than the fact that toucans like Froot Loops, I’m pretty ignorant. I thought the ‘toucan’ was a species of bird, but as usual, I’m wrong. They are instead a family of birds, called the Ramphastidae.

Toucans live in tropical and subtropical forests in Central and South America. They generally live in tree hollows, either naturally made or created by those wondrous animal architects, the woodpecker. These holes often are quite small, so the toucan uses a unique bone formation in its tail that allows the bird to curl its tail over its back, and tucks its beak under a wing to save space.

A keel-billed toucan, sporting a wonderfully coloured bill. Image By Andy Morffew, CC BY 2.0

Speaking of beaks, the toucan’s is ridiculous. It’s just crazy. I can’t imagine carrying something like that around my entire life. Although in some species of toucan their bills can be almost half their body length, they are extremely light. This is due to the structure of the bill; it’s made with struts of bone filled with light keratin. Even so, just because it’s light doesn’t mean it would be fun to have – I think it would be amazingly unwieldy.

But toucans’ oversized bills do have a purpose – we’re just still trying to figure out exactly what this is. In most birds (and other animals) an exaggerated trait that has no clear functional purpose usually has to do with reproduction. For example, male peacocks are brightly coloured and have unbelievably large tails to attract females. With the toucan, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Females and males both sport large colourful beaks, which suggests that sexual selection is not the cause for the toucan’s distinguishing feature.

There are a couple of theories about the function of the toucan’s beak, most of which seem fairly valid, and the true purpose is probably a combination of all of them. One major probable function of the toucan’s bill is for thermoregulation, as it is a very efficient organ for heat exchange (much like an elephant’s ears). Another theory is that the bill is used for camouflage; it is a very bright coloured beak and likely blends in well in tropical forests. The bill also assists in feeding, giving toucans the ability to reach fruit that they otherwise couldn’t. As well, it may intimidate smaller birds, letting toucans guard fruits and nesting sites, and can be used to reach into tree hollows and raid nests of other birds.

Toucans eat mostly fruit, usually hopping from branch to branch and plucking fruit around it with its beak. They are capable of easily regurgitating large seeds without damaging them, as well as swallowing smaller ones. In this way toucans help spread seeds over large distances. Toucans also raid nests, eat insects and small reptiles and frogs. This helps supplement their diet with protein, something that might be hard to get on a fruit only regimen.

A toco toucan, the biggest species of toucan, grabbing a quick drink. Image By Charles James Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0

These birds are monogamous, and lay two to four glossy white eggs per clutch. They can have two or three broods a year, which sounds like a lot of to me, but at least the male toucan helps raise the chicks. The chicks have to stay in the nest for at least eight weeks so that those silly beaks can form.

Toucans are quite interesting birds, and I’m glad I finally know more about them. Apparently they very intelligent and playful, and some species are extremely hardy so they make great pets. Despite this and their attractive colouring, many species of toucan aren’t yet endangered, which is great news. On that happy note, thanks for reading and have a great day!

Cover image By Basa Roland, CC BY-SA 3.0