Toucans exist as some of the most colorful and unique birds in the world. Known for oversized, vibrantly colored beaks, toucans inhabit the tropical forests of Central and South America. There exist over 40 different species of toucans, ranging greatly in size and coloration. But all share some key features that make toucans so fascinating. Here are 15 fascinating facts about these remarkable birds.
1. The massive beaks are very lightweight
The most noticeable feature of toucans is undoubtedly the enormous, brightly colored beaks. But despite the size, these beaks are surprisingly lightweight. The beaks are made of keratin, the same protein comprising human fingernails and hair. The interior of the beak has a honeycomb structure that provides strength while minimizing weight. This allows toucans to wield massive bills with ease. The large size and bright colors are thought to play a role in attracting mates and intimidating predators.
2. Toucans use the bills like an extra limb
Toucans use the massive bills like a third leg. The bills allow reaching and manipulating food sources that would otherwise remain inaccessible. The serrated edges of the beaks act like teeth, enabling gripping, peeling, and cutting fruit. The long, feather-like tongues allow for lapping up insects and other small prey. Toucans can even use the bills to probe into tree cavities to raid nests of eggs and hatchlings. The dexterity with the bills is impressive, allowing efficient exploitation of food sources.
3. Toucans are talented hoppers
While able to fly, toucans prefer hopping and climbing through the forest canopy. The short, rounded wings provide enough lift to travel short distances between trees. The unique zygodactyl feet, with two toes facing forward and two facing back, allow securely gripping branches. By hopping and climbing, rather than flying, toucans conserve energy while moving through the arboreal habitat. And if needed, they can still take to the air and fly short distances.
4. Toucans have a wide-ranging diet
Toucans are omnivores and eat a varied diet. Fruit makes up the bulk of the food. But toucans also prey on insects, frogs, snakes, rodents, and eggs and hatchlings stolen from nests. The large bills allow capturing and consumption of this wide range of prey. And because different food sources peak in abundance at different times, toucans can take advantage of whatever is readily available. This varied diet likely contributes to the success of tropical forests.
5. Toucans are noisy birds
Toucans are among the noisiest birds of the American tropics. A wide repertoire of vocalizations including barks, croaks, and growls exists. The loud calls can be heard up to a mile away through the forest. These noisy vocalizations help toucans stay in contact with flock members while foraging. They also signal the location of feeding sites, allowing multiple toucans to congregate on fruiting trees. And the cacophonous calls may help deter potential nest predators.
6. Toucans are social birds
Toucans are highly social birds that travel and roost in small flocks of up to 20 individuals. By foraging in groups, more efficient location of fruiting trees and maximization of feeding occur. And by roosting together, some protection from nocturnal predators may be gained. The noisy vocalizations likely help maintain the cohesion of groups while moving through the forest. This social behavior seems to provide benefits that enhance the survival of these colorful birds.
7. Toucans nest in tree cavities
Toucans do not build nests themselves. Instead, nesting occurs in pre-existing cavities in trees 1. These are often old woodpecker nests that have been abandoned and excavated further by the toucans. By reusing and enlarging these cavities, toucans save energy from having to construct a nest. Competition for nest sites can be fierce. And once a site is obtained, toucans aggressively defend it from usurpers. The cavities provide a safer place to lay and incubate eggs compared to an open nest.
8. Toucans have unique sleeping habits
Toucans display some intriguing sleeping behaviors. The tail is turned over the back and the head is tucked into the back feathers. Perched on a branch, leaning forward allows the large bill to rest on the breast. Scientists hypothesize this hunched posture is for sleeping to conserve body heat. By pressing the bill against the body, heat loss through the bill which has abundant blood vessels for heat exchange is prevented.
9. The bills grow slowly
The massive bill of a toucan is not present at birth. Baby toucans hatch with small, short-beak sheaths. The beaks grow slowly over several months before reaching full adult size. For several weeks after hatching, the chicks are completely dependent on the parents to provide food as they cannot feed themselves with the small bills. Once the bills grow, self-feeding can start.
10. Toucans are threatened by habitat loss
Toucans rely on tropical forests for survival. But deforestation occurring across Central and South America is reducing habitat. As humans clear land for agriculture, pasture, plantations, and development, toucans lose homes and food sources. Some toucan species with small ranges face extinction. Habitat loss is the most severe threat facing toucans, highlighting the need for forest conservation.
11. Toucans are popular in pop culture
With their large, colorful bills and distinctive appearance, toucans have become icons in popular culture. Toucans are used to advertise products like Guinness Beer and Froot Loops cereal. Cartoon toucans have appeared in media aimed at children. Toucan imagery is widely used in fabric prints, jewelry, and souvenirs. The popularity of toucans in pop culture demonstrates the appeal of exotic, tropical birds.
12. Toucans are important seed dispersers
Toucans play a vital ecological role by dispersing the seeds of fruiting plants. As fruit is eaten throughout the forest, toucans swallow seeds which pass through the digestive system unharmed. The seeds can then be dispersed far from the parent plant via droppings. This seed dispersal helps tropical trees and other plants propagate and maintain genetic diversity.
13. Toucans have a special heat exchange system
Toucans possess a unique vascular heat exchange system in the bill which helps thermoregulate 2. By regulating blood flow to the bill, toucans can control the amount of heat dissipated through the bill. Increased blood flow allows heat to be dumped from the body core into the bill. This helps cool on hot days. The bill also has a large surface area with numerous blood vessels, making it an efficient heat dissipater.
14. The bills are used for communication
The massive, colorful bill of toucans plays an important role in communication. In courtship, mates will fence and joust with the bills. The bill’s size and coloration signal sex and fitness. And toucans will wipe their bills following conflicts, suggesting the bills convey social status. The bill also features in vocalizations, as it resonates and amplifies the croaks and calls. Overall, the toucan’s bill is a dynamic, multimodal communication tool.
15. Toucans are resilient to habitat disturbance
Compared to other tropical birds, toucans seem relatively resilient to human disturbances like selective logging and forest fragmentation. While sensitive species disappear when forests are altered, toucans can persist. The generalist diet, ability to fly between fragments, and cavity-nesting all likely contribute to this resilience. However, toucans do require intact forests for successful breeding and feeding. However, the adaptability offers some hope that survival in modified habitats is possible.
In summary, toucans are amazing birds perfectly adapted to life in the tropics. The large bills allow for the exploitation of a wide range of food sources. And the colorful plumage and social behaviors add to the uniqueness. Hopefully, through forest conservation and sustainable practices, these fascinating birds can continue thriving for generations to come.