Sunday, October 28, 2007

Toucans – ramphastos sulfuratos, ramphastos swainsonii

In Guanacaste I was blessed to live alongside a troupe of howler monkeys. Here I’m blessed to share space with a flock of toucans. They are such unbelievably beautiful birds: black black black with stunning lemon yellow chests and heads; splotches of red and white under wings and tails and the beaks. The beaks are bizarre. Hollow structures supported by struts, clearly too big to be of any real use. When they fly they spread out their tail feathers, and so look curiously balanced, sometimes it’s hard to tell the head from the tail at a distance, and I swear I saw one flying backwards last week. They eat, in this garden, palm fruits, but their beaks are too big for them to look at what’s directly ahead; they have this slow and very steady gradual tilt of the head – like some elderly dowager nodding sedately off to sleep. They turn their heads and with bright beady eye source their food. Then, just as delicately, they pick it with the very tip of their beak, flick back their head, open their beak and in it goes. Not a terribly satisfying or efficient way to eat I think. There are two distinct types here, different species according to the birdbooks. The keel-billed and the chestnut-mandibled, why would two species evolve in the same place? The chestnut mandibled is bigger with a beautiful truly chestnut colour to their lower beak. The keel-billed has an incredible turquoise blue streak to their otherwise green and yellow bill, inside in the crook of their mouth is a brilliant flash of red. The birdbooks say these species have slightly different habits, eating patterns, nesting spaces and calls. The chestnut lives in flocks of 10-15, the keel in smaller flocks of less than 6. However the flock which eats here is mixed, 2 chestnuts with 8 keel-billed. There’s also a pair of aracaris which seem to stay close to the toucans (the aracaris supposedly flock with 10-15 of their own kind). The calls are loud; crrrik (keel), keeureek kirick kirick (chestnut) and pseek, pisseek, pink (aracari) and penetrating, in their staccato, castanet

like sound. No-one has told these birds they are different and should live apart. It seems normal, and fitting for this part of the world to have this happy little mixed flock.