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Tropical bird: The Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Photo by David A. Homer

For most of us, the opportunity to watch tropical birds doesn’t happen that frequently, if at all, so when the opportunity arises, it is something to relish.

My wife and I just returned home from Costa Rica. Little did we know when booking the trip last summer that it would be such a great relief to spend a few days away from this harsh winter!

Costa Rica is a small Central American country about the same land mass as Nova Scotia, but yet, it can boast over 880 different species of birds, 8% of recorded bird species, more than the combined total of birds in all of North America.  Some of “our” summer birds migrate there, but most birds are neo tropical, and they look significantly different from the birds we know in our backyard!

One of the delights for me was to spend an hour prior to dinner one evening watching a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.  The Toucan family of birds comprises 42 individual species, but two, the Chestnut-mandibledand the Keel-billed are much larger than the rest, and are therefore more likely seen by eyes that are not used to searching for birds in the immense canopy of the Rainforest. They are quite easy to identify. I had seen Keel-billed toucans on a previous trip to Costa Rica, but this was my first encounter with the Chestnut. The Chestnut-mandibledis the largest toucan at 24-26” long, which includes their disproportionately huge bills, about one-third the length of the entire body. The chestnut and yellow coloured bill is used in social communication, waving and clashing it against the trees branches, but it is primarily used to reach for food.

Toucans are for the most part frugivorous, but will take insects, small lizards, snakes and even bird’s eggs. This one was foraging using its elongated bill to pluck fruits; many of which are inaccessible to species not blessed with such protuberances! From its standing position on a limb, it reached its head up, down, sideways and even behind it to pluck fruit.  Because of the very long bill, it then would throw its head back in order to toss the food into its gullet.  Once in the gizzard, the fruit seed is extracted from the pulp which is swallowed; the remaining seed is regurgitated and will be germinated on the floor of the rainforest.

Although this bird was by itself, they normally forage in small flocks of 5-8 individuals.  Males and females look alike, but the male birds tend to have larger bills. They don’t sing as such, but their calls include yells, croaks, barks and rattles.

Nests are primarily in abandoned woodpecker holes.  Young do not attain their long bill for several months after they have fledged and are fed by parents until such time as they can feed themselves.

If you are planning a trip to Central or South America, they can be found from Belize south to Colombia.

Written by David A. Homer.