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Why the Large Bill on the Toucan?

Dear Bird Folks,

One of my favorite birds is the toucan. I think they look really cool. I’d like to know why they have such large bills. What is the purpose?

– Britney, 5th grade, Hartford, CT


Forget what I said, Britney,


When you came in with your family last week and asked me this question in person, I wasn’t sure of the answer. So, I did what I usually do in that situation, I made something up. But now that I’ve had a chance to think about it for a while (i.e. do some research), it turns out my answer wasn’t really accurate. I knew someday someone would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, but I never thought it would be a 5th grader from Hartford. This is why I don’t like talking to students. They are all so much smarter than I am.

Although they are native to Central and South America, toucans are known throughout the world because of their giant schnozes. When compared to its boy size, the toucan’s beak is the largest of any bird on earth. Why do they need such a large beak? Like the fancy tail of a male peacock, experts first thought that male toucans used their jumbo beaks to attract a mate (and that’s sort of what I told you last week). However, it seems not everyone buys into this theory. Why not? Using the peacock example once again, the male displays his fancy tail to attract the duller female. Dull is often attracted to fancy and vice versa. (Which is a good thing for bankers or they’d all be single.) But this rule doesn’t apply to toucans. The males and the females look nearly identical. They both have equally large beaks. So, it’s not likely that a female toucan would be overly impressed with a beak that looks the same as hers. (However, their beaks are used in one part of their mating ritual. I’ll tell you about it later…if it’s okay with your parents.)

Another hypothesis is that their huge beak is used for protection. This one I think makes sense. After all, some birds’ beaks are formidable weapons. For example, few creatures challenge the spear-like beak of a Great Blue Heron and more than one bird bander has had a finger ripped open by the beak of a sweet-looking cardinal. But while the massive toucan’s beak looks strong enough to snap a turtle in half, in reality it’s more Nerf-like. It is light, not very strong and offers very little protection from anything. (So much for that idea.) Recently, scientists have come up with a new theory and it has to do with, of all things, heat regulation. It’s not as exciting as mate attraction or fending off predators, but it might actually be true.

When we humans get too warm we sweat and peel off layers of clothing. But birds don’t sweat. (They are much too dignified to do that.) They also can’t easily remove layers. (Remember, their clothing is attached.) The best they can do on a hot day is spread their wings to increase air circulation, or open their mouths and pant like a dog…but without all the drool. Then it was discovered that birds also lose heat through their beaks. Using inferred thermography, researchers have determined that toucans not only lose heat through their beaks, but the birds could also control the amount of heat they lose. By regulating blood flow to its beak (yes, beaks actually have blood flow), a toucan is able to control its body temperature. In a matter of minutes, the bird can raise or lower its temperature as much as eighteen degrees. (Man, I wish I could have done that when I was in school. I would have faked sick every day.)

In addition to heat regulation, the toucans’ large bill also comes in handy when feeding. For the most part, their diet consists of fruit, but they will also eat small lizards, frogs, birds’ eggs, and, of course, Fruit Loops. Their extra-long beaks allow them to reach into tree cavities to steal birds’ eggs or grab fruit from hard-to-reach places. However, these same beaks make eating awkward. Food is usually grabbed by the tip of the beak, then has to be tosssed into the air and caught farther back towards the throat so it can be swallowed. This ability to toss and snag food out of the air is part of a toucan’s mating ritual (see, I told you I’d get back to it). Many birds (bluebirds, for example) perform something called “mate feeding,” in which one bird, usually the male, passes food to its mate. Mate feeding helps solidify the couple’s pair bond. Toucans sometimes take this mate feeding to a whole new level by actually tossing bits of food back and forth like a circus act. It sounds cute, but when I tried tossing food to my wife, she wasn’t happy about it. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried it with soup first.

Sorry I didn’t give you the complete answer when you asked me about toucans last week, Britney, but I think I did better this time around. Here are a few other bits of trivia about these colorful birds. There are nearly forty different species of toucans, with the largest being the two-foot-long Toco Toucan. They can actually curl their tails over their backs, perhaps to help keep their massive beaks warm while they sleep. Also, they have zygodactyly toes. (I’ll bet they didn’t teach you that in Hartford.) Most birds have three front-facing toes and one in the back, but toucans have two in front and two in back (like woodpeckers) to help them get a better grip on trees. Finally, I was only kidding when I said Fruit Loops was part of a toucan’s diet. This of course is not true. They would much rather eat Cocoa Puffs.