Written by Cyril Brass

          Without a doubt, the Rainbow-billed Toucan is the most recognizable of all toucan species. It is also known as the Keel-billed Toucan, Sulfur-breasted Toucan, “Billed” bird or even the “Fruit Loop” bird, the Rainbow-billed Toucan is the most recognizable of all toucan species. 

Named “Tucano” by the Tupi Indians of Brazil, it Toucan is the largest and most vocal of the forty toucan species.  Its plumage is mostly black with a bright yellow chest and neck and red and white strips on its short tail.

But everyone can identify this particular toucan by the distinctively large colourful bill.  It is one of the most brightly marked beaks of all bird species.   A rainbow of colors highlights the elongated beak, with shades of green on the top portion, orange band across the sides, pale blues and greens on bottom and dark red at tip of beak.

The extraordinarily large beak appears to be heavy and cumbersome. But even though the beak makes up one third of the overall length of the bird, it does not affect the balance of this feathered creature. Despite the size, the beak is deceptively light in weight. The bill consists of a strong network of spongy hollow and narrow fibres covered with a strong protein called Keratin. Keratin is the same material as what human hair and fingernails consist of.

It is not really known why this bird has developed such an exaggerated multicoloured beak.  One of its uses is to reach fruit on branches that are too small to support the bird’s weight.  It is used as a skilful tool for plucking ripened fruit from awkward angles.  The bill is considered to be used as a visual threat to scare off potential predators.  They are also used as weapons when jousting and fighting among themselves.  When in a more playful mischievous mood, the toucans would throw berries at another bird using their beaks. The beak is also thought to be used in courtship display.

The Rainbow-billed Toucans are very social birds rarely seen alone. They live in a smallish community-oriented nature consisting of several families. 

Even when in flight, they travel in small flocks. Toucans are poor flyers. They have a very noticeable flight pattern using several rapid wing beats followed by long gliding. I was fortunate to see this unique flight pattern. It was during a rafting adventure in Costa Rica; when two Rainbow-billed Toucans flew right overhead our raft. Luckily, we were able to stop paddling for a minute to enjoy this unique sight.

But the preference for these feathered creatures is to travel through the upper levels of the rainforests, hopping from tree to tree, branch to branch.  Their feet have been adapted for this type of life style. The toes face in opposite direction; two toes face forward and two face backwards. This helps to tightly grip branches and to hop from one branch to another.

They nest in natural cavities or abandoned tree hollows high in the trees. These toucans share the cramped quarters with several other individuals. It’s odd that a bird with such a large beak would choose a small enclosed space in which to rest. However, sufficient space is made for them all in these safe refuge.  When sleeping, they turn their head and place their beak on its back with the hook pushed down between wing and body.  The tail is folded over their head.  The bird becomes a ball of feathers.

Rainbow-billed Toucans’ diet consists mostly of various fruits and berries but sometimes includes insects, small reptiles and eggs. They are seen tossing their head back to drop their food from the end of the long bill into their throat.  When feeding in groups, meal time can be deafening with constant chattering of the hungry flock. 

The best time to see the Rainbow-billed Toucan is at dawn and at dusk as this is when they are most active in the day. 

This close up image of a Rainbow-billed Toucan was taken at a small family run rehabilitation home for wild animals.  I was on my way into the tropical lowlands along the northern coastline of Costa Rica. Our transport vehicle stopped at this home for a short break which allowed us time to stretch our legs, have a cold beverage and to check out the injured animals being helped.  It is always exciting to see locals taking pride in helping the wildlife in their country.

These most recognizable birds are a threatened species, but not endangered, due to the destruction of the tropical and subtropical rainforests.  Rainbow-billed Toucans live in the jungles and rainforests of southern Mexico, throughout Central America and in the northern regions of South America.  It is the National Bird of Belize.

The Rainbow-billed Toucan …… a social family-oriented creature ……. a bird with a stunning multicoloured beak …… a most recognizable tropical bird.


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