The first time I saw a toucan was while visiting a Mayan archaeological site in Belize (like cemeteries, ruins can be great places for birding). A pair of Keel-billed Toucans flew across the open space between buildings. I don’t remember the colors, just that distinctive silhouette. A few years later, in Panama, I learned there was another type of toucan, the Black-mandibled Toucan (now Yellow-throated Toucan). And I kept learning about more and more species of this family.
Toucans, toucanets, and aracaris are considered near-passerines, a tree-perching group. Ranging from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, the toucans are primarily fruit eaters, but will eat insects and small lizards. Their large but light-weight bills help them regulate their body temperature, and also lets them rob other birds’ nests of eggs and nestlings.
There are more than 3 dozen species of toucans. Some are widespread, like the Toco Toucan, and others inhabit a very limited range. And while most species are considered of least concern by, at least one, the Yellow-browed Toucanet, may have a population of fewer than 2,000 individuals.
In the years since that first sighting, I’ve seen more than a dozen species of toucans and toucanets, and become more enthralled. They are my main target bird on any trip to the neotropics. While the hummingbirds, parrots and tanagers I’ve seen in the neotropics are gorgeous and fascinating to watch, to me, nothing has as much charisma as a toucan.
Most recently, I visited south-east Brazil to bird in the Atlantic rainforest of Sao Paolo state. From sea level to more than 4,000 feet in elevation, I fell in love with the mountain scenery. There was the possibility of four (4!) new toucans – the Green-billed or Red-chested Toucans, Spot-billed Toucanet, Saffron Toucanet and Channel-billed Toucan. And I saw them all! After meeting our guides at the airport, I stressed how much I wanted to see the toucans, and the local guide just smiled and said not to worry. Before we even reached the first lodge, we saw the Green-billed Toucan. The other 3 species showed up as promised. We watched the spot-billed bowing as he called. Next, a brief glimpse of the Saffron Toucanet, and finally the gorgeous Channel-billed Toucan. The channel billed toucan has a wide distribution in Brazil, and most fascinatingly, it has been divided into several races with various color morphs, from mostly blue, white and yellow in the north to orange, yellow and crimson in the south.
Central and South America are full of wonders, from the amazing birds to the mammals, insects and orchids. But for me, the symbol of the neotropics is a toucan.