Sunday, May 16, 2010

Meet the Toco Toucan

I had heard that Toco toucans are amazing birds. Now that I've seen them in person I can't disagree. They look like cartoon characters, all long colorful beak and short dark body. One wonders why they don't simply topple over at the first hint of a gentle breeze!

Looks can be deceiving though; the beak is actually quite light. Its interior is something like a honeycomb crafted from keratin (the material that also makes up human fingernails), but even so it is nothing short of incredible that the toucan's skull can support such a huge seven and a half inch construction.

Tocos are fairly common in the wilds of South America where they congregate in small flocks of about six birds. The males and females both display the outsized beak, using it to catch insects, frogs, and lizards. It is also deployed as a tool to pluck eggs from nests and fruit from small branches they couldn't otherwise access.

Despite the unwieldy shape of their heads they have evolved to rest in hollow trees. They accomplish this by turning their necks completely around and tucking their beaks along the ridge of their backs. They then turn their tails to drape over their beaks, and so transform into a small ball of feathers. As many as six birds may occupy a single wooden cavity in this manner.

Of course, there are some trade-offs to this lifestyle. Flying well is one. That doesn't seem to bother them much though. They simply hop through the tree tops. Escaping predators would seem like a huge downside here, but in fact flocks of toucans employ a little known rule of the jungle: the most ridiculous-looking animals get the last laugh. And in fact Tocos do, often surrounding birds of prey and jeering loudly at them until they become annoyed enough to leave the area. After all, they have the bigger beak.

Thanks to Bone Clones for the photo of the Toco skull!


  1. I love your blog!!! This post is great! I love animals and learning about them! Thanks for the awesome information!!

  2. Thanks so much Squid! Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Love Toucans! I used to work at a pet shop who had two on loan from a zoo (why? i don't know.) I swear their dry food smelled like freakin' fruit loops lol! Beautiful birds and very curious and engaging. It was not fun cleaning their cages though, Toucan guano is like cement!

    I felt bad though as that pet shop was nowhere near equipped (or inclined) to be caring for these birds (let alone all the other animals...)I worked there for maybe 2 weeks until I quit because I was disgusted with their attitude towards animals (I brought home with me one sweet male hairless rat though:)

    Those guys look like they are having much more fun in a zoo with such dedicated people!

  4. Great post! Interesting and with nice pix. I just learned a lot about toco toucans.


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