Published On: Thu, Jan 8th, 2015

BACKYARD BIRDING IN MERIDA, YUCATAN AND BEYOND-TWO CAN , ONE CAN’T: Keel-billed Toucan

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Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired”, zoologist, wildlife photographer, and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 53 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her column, published on the 7th and 21st of each month features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and beyond. Contact: all4birdies@gmail.com  All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo

Keel-billed Toucan, Ramphastos sulfuratus, Pito real (Spanish)

Keel-billed Toucan in front of my Merida home

Keel-billed Toucan in front of my Merida home

Imagine you are in a humid forest or forest edge between eastern Mexico down to Colombia and Venezuela and you heard these sounds for 40 seconds: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/6776 . Wouldn’t you think you heard a frog chorus?

As often as you have seen the caricature of the Kellogg’s Fruit Loop bird or the advertising of the tropics with Keel-billed Toucan photos, I don’t think you would have suspected this toucan croaks like a frog. By the way, Kellogg’s toucan is not the Keel-billed Toucan that people claim as the Fruit Loop bird but the mascot could be inspired by the Toco, Ariel, or Channel-billed Toucan.

Keel-billed Toucan checks out my camera in my backyard view

Keel-billed Toucan checks out my camera in my backyard view

If you could watch the 17- 22 inch Keel-billed Toucan  squawk, it jerks up its head and tail which both descend as it makes the 5-7 note sequence and then repeats the same behavior during the next series.

Open bill of Keel-billed Toucan

Open bill of Keel-billed Toucan

One of my pet peeves is the inappropriate common names of birds, but this species has descriptive common names including Sulfur-billed Toucan or Rainbow-billed Toucan. Although the bill receives most of the attention, I think the bird is stunning with its yellow throat and bib, black body and tail, white rump, a scarlet powder puff of feathers under the tail and pale blue legs. Yep, pale blue!

Keel-billed Toucan alights in my Merida backyard view

Keel-billed Toucan alights in my Merida backyard view

Keel-billed Toucan in my Merida centro backyard

Keel-billed Toucan in my Merida centro backyard

That multi-hued 5-6inch bill is hollow and lightweight, made up of a strong, fingernail-like protein, keratin. Criss cross bony rods support it. Even the keel-billed shape has been copied in aircraft design. Wonder if the bill inspired the name for the Kill Bill movies?

Keeled-bill Toucan in captivity at Cozumel

Keeled-bill Toucan in captivity at Cozumel

Somehow the bill looks too heavy especially when in flight as if the rest of the bird just follows where the bill goes. Many sources repeat that this species with an undulating flight cannot fly well, but other sources say that’s incorrect.

The bill seems to lead the way for the Keel-billed Toucan in flight

The bill seems to lead the way for the Keel-billed Toucan in flight

But wait, there’s more to add to the bill!

The bill serves in regulating its body temperature and may help in individual recognition among its family and feathered friends. Also the bill colors and size enable scientists to classify toucans into 35-43 species.

At least the Froot Loop commericals were correct in depicting a mainly fruit-eating bird as a logo. The Keel-billed Toucan supplements its diet with snakes, lizards, frogs, insects and spiders, songbird eggs and chicks.

Keel-billed Toucan near my Merida home

Keel-billed Toucan near my Merida home

Scientists theorize the bill length gives the toucan an extra reach for fruit as the bird dangles on the outer reaches of tiny limbs. With the tip of its bill, it picks fruit, tosses its food up in the air, and catches it toward the back of the throat! It may seem inefficient, but it works.

Some researches classify toucans as gulpers while certain other birds, such as tanagers, are called mashers. It seems the mashers appear to squash berries or small fruits, especially those that contain about 10% sugar solution. Who knew birds had taste receptors for sugar? I digress.

Some seeds are consumed and others are spit out. Either way, it’s a method of seed dispersal. But the toucan recycles some regurgitated seeds.

Those of us who live in Merida are familiar with the handmade, decorative pasta floor tiles or mosaicos made of cement. Hold onto your feathered caps now. When a monogamous pair of toucans locates a tree cavity for nesting, the nest lacks a soft lining. Instead they line the nest with regurgitated seeds of different sizes and shapes that look like a mosaic floor!

Pasta tile, dinning

Pasta tile, dinning

After nest-building, mating occurs, because one can’t but “two can” and the female lays one to four eggs.  To incubate the eggs, the toucan will lay its bill on its back, cover the bill with its tail, fluff out its plumage and look like a round ball of feathers! At least that has been reported in captive toucans but that may not occur in the wild.

When the chicks hatch, they have a ring of projections on their heels, like Manolo Blahniks. Evidently these spiked heels help grasp smaller cobblestones on their nest floor.

Parent toucans bring green leaves to the nest which may act as an insecticide until the leaves die. Dead leaves are removed and replaced with fresh leaves. When the chicks depart after almost two months, the nest doesn’t usually have any parasites or maggots.

Several references state the toucan uses woodpecker holes for nests but they’ve been observed they can’t enter the largest woodpecker nest hole unless it’s been enlarged by another bird, such as a parrot.  Usually natural tree cavities are used. Once the monogamous pair finds a tree cavity and make a nest, they’ll continue to use it for several years. Who wouldn’t want to use it since it has a mosaic floor?

Toucan checks out former woodpecker hole enlarged by White-fronted Parrots

Toucan checks out former woodpecker hole enlarged by White-fronted Parrots

Many references regurgitated that several toucans roost inside tree cavities but actually toucans roost in trees not in the cavities.

I recently learned how gregarious Keel-billed Toucans are. Early mornings in southern Campeche or Quintana Roo along highways cut through a tall forest are ideal to see a loose string of toucans fly over the roads on their way to eat breakfast.

It seems one decides to fly to a specific tree, followed by another, then another. They depart sporadically as well as if to decide whether to go or not. But this is typical behavior. So, a dozen appeared in one tree. By the time I got camera and tripod unpacked, only four were left in this one tree.

4 of 12 Keel-billed Toucans in one tree

4 of 12 Keel-billed Toucans in one tree

Regardless, it reminds me of decorative mosaic floor tile.

Go outdoors to observe nature’s mosaic of colors.

DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on details about this species. Here are my resources: http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=303256 Sal a Pajarear Yucatan, 100 Common Birds of the Yucatan Peninsula, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Birds and Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula, Travellers’ Wildlife Guide Southern Mexico, A Neotropical Companion, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, Birds of Tropical Americas, http://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v088n02/p0381-p0396.pdf, http://macaulaylibrary.org/ Cornell Lab of Ornithology  

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  1. Mark Warwarick says:

    Terrific article/writing! Amazing photographs! Hope I luck out in seeing something as incredible as this when I visit Merida and parts of the Yucatan. Canadian birds are sooo boring.

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