Posted by: Rob Viens | April 14, 2012

Toucan Encounters

On April 14th, the party packed up after a comfortable rest on the fazenda and headed to their final destination:

“Started at midday for Mr Lennons estate; the road passed through a vast extent of forests; on the road we saw many beautiful birds, Toucans & Bee-eaters. We slept at a Fazenda a league from our journeys end” (Apr 14)

For a short, Saturday-night post I thought I’d just comment on some of the many colorful residents of the tropical forest that Darwin was encountering. Today it was birds – the toucans and something that looked like a bee-eater.

Toucans are probably one of the best known New World tropical birds – if for no other reason, one of their own (Toucan Sam) hit the big time as a “spokesbird” for Froot Loops.

The name, it is said, comes from the Tupi people of Brazil who referred to the bird as tukana. And, if fact, there may me more than a colorful connection with Froot Loops – toucans are primarily frugivores (fruit eaters).  Though I highly doubt that Froot Loops would have any appeal to them (especially since the “Froot” in the name – which clearly is not spelled “Fruit” – probably refers more to their colors and the artificial flavorings made in a lab in New Jersey). Anyway…

Toucans belong to the family Ramphastidae, and consists of about 40 different species (5 of which occur in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest). Many of these species (though not all) live in the forest canopy. Some of the species of toucans found in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (seen below) include the (a) Channel-billed Toucan, (b) Green-billed Toucan, (c) Spot-billed Toucanet and (d) Saffron Toucanet. (images from Wikipedia commons)

toucans from SE Brazil

Their seems to be some question about purpose of the toucan’s large bill. Some suggest (and I always assumed) that it was an adaptation for eating particular types of fruit (normally a heavy beak would be great for cracking nuts). But others have suggested that it may have more social functions, such as a visual warning to other birds, or be the result of sexual selection (which was suggested by Darwin later in his life).

For a more visual and auditory toucan encounter of your own, check out toucan videos and sound files on the Internet Bird Network.

As for the bee-eaters Darwin mentions – well, all I can say is that when it came to birds in particular, Darwin used his knowledge of Old World species as a reference frame. So he didn’t always get it right.  As far as I can tell, the bee-eaters are confined to the Old World, and so I suspect that Darwin must have encountered something similar to the bee-eaters that he had seen back home. Heck – you can hardly blame him – he was blazing new trails in the New World. What the birds actually were, however, I have no idea. (RJV)


  1. Is it true that birds of a feather flock together? Chuck is into ALL of nature, but who wouldn’t be fascinated with Aves, the “glorified reptiles?” Like other animals, birds are wonderful examples of natural selection at work with their adaptations for flight, a form of movement that has always intrigued humankind.

    Rob’s photos of the toucans were fun and it reminded me that birds are a diverse lot, much more that the robins, sparrows and crows that we see everyday. Ah yes, there are penguins, ostriches, parrots, quails, larks and so much more. Hummingbirds are always a marvel and occasionally I have a beautiful woodpecker visit my yard and I purposely take the time to observe this bird at work.

    Our fascination with birds extends to the “nation’s past time” (whatever that means), baseball, with teams like the cardinals, blue jays and orioles.

    And how about the albatross of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner fame?

  2. Ah, the amount of time I could now spend on the Internet Bird Network – a resource that is new to me!

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