Greetings from the rainforest! This week, I've decided to feature toucans! These birds are very common in Costa Rica, and I never tire of seeing them flying in the wild.
There are two species of toucans endemic to Costa Rica: the keel-billed toucan and the chestnut-mandibled toucan. The keel-billed toucan is probably the bird you think of when someone says the word "toucan". Their beaks look painted: a fantastical combination of blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. I haven't seen one in the wild as these birds are found more in the north, but around Quepos, the second species of Costa Rican toucan, the chestnut-mandibled toucan, is very common. These birds are larger, with more subtle beaks than their rainbow-billed relatives. Their beaks are a combination of rich brown, yellow, and bright green, and their vivid coloration is most likely used in courtship or intimidation displays. Toucans eat fruit, eggs, and small animals, and they are surprisingly adept at using their large bills to manipulate and eat food. When they find a fruit, they pluck it from the tree and hold it with the tip of their beak. They toss it in the tip of their beak several times, then toss it backwards down their throat. Due to their large size and dexterity, there are few fruits they can't eat. In fact, I've seen a toucan cut open a mamón (basically a lychee with a much tougher peel) and eat it in as little as ten seconds. I haven't seen one catch a lizard or steal a bird egg yet, although I'm sure that would be interesting to see.
Toucans have a special place in my heart because they were one of the first animals to welcome me to my new home. After I arrived at Kids Saving the Rainforest, I was given a tour of the wildlife sanctuary. During this tour, I heard a bird call that was unlike any I'd heard before. Sonorous calls that sounded halfway between a shriek and a chirp, the sounds emanated from the rainforest, and I couldn't believe it when I heard that these were wild toucans close by. On my first full day of my internship, I woke up early before work and went out onto the balcony to look at the sunrise over the jungle. I heard those same, wild calls again, and to my delight I saw three toucans hopping among the branches in the tall trees around me! Toucans sit in trees and majestically look around them, resplendent beaks and striking black feathers standing out as they soberly scan their surroundings. Suddenly, they burst into a flurry of action, and little legs propel them forward as they daintily hop and flutter between branches. When they find food, usually a piece of fruit hanging from a tree, they pluck it with the tip of their massive beak, toss it up and down a couple of times, then deftly toss it into the back of their throat and swallow. Occasionally, they sharpen their beak on a branch with a surprisingly loud scraping sound. They split the balance between regal beauty and absurdity, their ornate beak sometimes adding majesty to their movements, sometimes adding an air of ridiculousness.
I have worked with one chestnut-mandibled toucan so far at Kids Saving the Rainforest. Her name was Mandy, and she came in before I arrived, brought in by a Tico who found her with a broken leg. Diego, one the veterinarians, showed me videos of her shortly after she arrived. A pitiful sight, she sat on a blanket in the bottom of the cage, her leg too damaged for her to perch on a branch. Due to the extent of her injury, few people had hope when she was brought in that she could someday be released. However, the vet staff decided to give her a chance because she kept trying: fighting and struggling to perch and fly around the cage. Once she had healed enough to perch, they performed physical therapy by making her move around the cage to strengthen her leg. Because her leg healed at an angle, she will never move exactly like she did before. However, when I first saw her after months of healing, I could barely tell that there was anything wrong with her. In fact, by the time I had arrived, the staff at KSTR was already discussing releasing her. They decided to do a soft release, which involves releasing an animal into the wild but still setting out food for them in an accessible location to make it easier for them to get adjusted to the wild. On Sunday night, we caught Mandy from her cage in rehab and moved her to a smaller cage in the nursery to let her become familiar with the area overnight. The next morning, we placed a bowl of food on top of the cage, opened the cage door, then stood back to watch what she would do. After a couple minutes of hesitation, she hopped out of her cage into a tree branch next to her food bowl. A previous intern that was heavily involved in her physical therapy and rehabilitation had written a poem before the end of her internship that she requested to be read when Mandy was released. While Mandy ate a full breakfast from her food bowl, we read the poem aloud to her to commemorate the hard work this intern had invested and to laud Mandy's fighting spirit. Mandy then began hopping and fluttering through the tree branches as toucans do. She attempted to fly out of the tree, but faltered and fell into the branches of the next tree over. Since she had been in cages that limited her flight abilities for several months, she would need practice before being able to fly long distances again. Having a guaranteed food source out for her ensures that until she is capable of flying to fruit trees, she'll be able to eat and stay healthy.
One last thing: I would be remiss if I didn't mention in this creature feature the toucan's striking cousin, the aracari. These little birds look like an child's drawing come to life. They're best described as a smaller, skinnier toucan with a color palette that only draws from black, red, orange, yellow, and white. I could write another whole blog post about them (and very well might in the future!), but for now I'll leave you with a picture of Camelio, the fiery-billed aracari in the sanctuary at KSTR.
Garrigues, Richard and Dean, Robert. The Birds of Costa Rica. San José: Zona Tropical, 2007.
Howe H.F. "Ramphastos swainsonii (Dios Tede, Toucan de Swainson, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan)." In Costa Rican Natural History, edited by Daniel H. Janzen. 603-604. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
The Kids Saving the Rainforest staff