Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

Everybody Loves Toucan Sam the Fruitloop Bird…Or do They?

Maybe We Should Ask Woody Woodpecker
By Jack Ewing

Guiding visitors on ecological tours can be very rewarding. Showing guests their first monkey, sloth or toucan is as gratifying for the guide as it is for the visitor. Birds and animals aren’t usually obvious to the untrained eye, and it is often difficult to explain or point out to people the exact position of wildlife within the dense vegetation of the rainforest. A typical conversation might go something like this: “See him? He’s right over there.” “Right over where?” “Look, just follow that trunk up to where it forks off to the left…” “Wait a minute, which trunk?” “That big one just to the right of the one with the vine.” “Oh yeah, that one. Okay now, I follow that up to the fork, right? Then where?” And so on, and so on. Once the bird or animal has been spotted with the naked eye, the next step is to find it with binoculars. Some visitors are practiced in the use of optical equipment, but many are not, and it is sometimes difficult for them to locate the wildlife. I have noticed that visitors will sometimes say they see something even if they don’t. However, there is never any doubt when the person encounters their first toucan. When the large yellow, black and red bird with the enormous beak comes into their field of vision, the visitor’s reaction can range from a simple, “Oh, my god,” to something resembling a low-level orgasm. Nowadays all of our guides have telescopes which they can quickly focus on the wildlife, eliminating all that foreplay and getting right down to the nitty-gritty.

Hacienda Baru

Everybody loves toucans. I’m relatively certain that the toucan has lent its name and image to more Costa Rican tourism businesses than any other any other bird or animal. Even outside of Costa Rica a popular breakfast cereal is identified with the famous Toucan Sam the Fruit Loop Bird. I use the word toucan here in the generic sense, but in reality there are many different kinds of these charismatic birds with their long boat-shaped beaks.

Costa Rica boasts six different species of toucan, two of which are found in the region around Dominical. The larger of these two, the chestnut-mandibled toucan (Ramphastos swansonii,) known locally as the quioro, is the largest toucan in Costa Rica. It is about the size of a small chicken. This impressive bird is mostly black with a yellow bib, chestnut on the lower portion of the bill and yellow on the upper. When seen from underneath a patch of red is clearly visible under the tail. A visitor once remarked to me that it should be called the “red-butted toucan.” The smaller toucan found in this area is called the fiery-billed aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii.) Known locally as the cusinga, this beautiful bird has lots of red and yellow on the beak and body. At about 250 grams (nine ounces), the cusinga is only about one-third as heavy as the quioro.

The call of the quioro sounds like the Spanish words “Dios te de,” repeated over and over, and it is therefore known by that name in some parts of Costa Rica. A couple of years ago, a very observant Hacienda Barú guest named Vicki figured out what the toucans communicate to each other when they repeatedly emit these melodic notes. Being an avid naturalist, Vicki was invariably up early and out on the trails with her binoculars. One morning she observed a group of eight chestnut-mandibled toucans flying across a sparsely wooded area. She watched while the group made their way to a fruit-bearing strangler fig tree about 300 meters (328 yards) away. They traversed that distance in four short flights. On each leg of the journey the leader of the group flew about seventy-five meters (eighty-two yards), landed in a tree and promptly began calling, “Dios te de, Dios te de, Dios te de.” One at a time the other seven toucans flew to the call, and each landed in the same tree as the leader. When the last toucan arrived, the leader immediately stopped calling and flew away on the next short flight. When the leader reached the location of the heavily fruited strangler fig, it landed in an adjacent tree and repeated the calling routine. Once all of the toucans had arrived, the entire group silently followed the leader over to the fig tree and started eating. Somehow the lead toucan was able to determine when the last member of the group had arrived. Whether it made this judgment by counting the arrivals, by recognizing the last toucan as an individual, or by some other method, is anybody’s guess. In any case, when the toucan calls, it is obviously saying, “I’m over here, I’m over here, I’m over here.” Listen carefully next time you hear one and see if you don’t agree.

My wife once bought me a fiery-billed aracari for my birthday. Diane and I both love animals, but we disagree about keeping birds for pets. She likes to have them around the house, and I prefer to see them out in the jungle. Nevertheless, after a couple of weeks of cleaning the toucan’s cage, Diane reluctantly agreed that some things are best left in the wild. We decided that the famous “Fruit Loop Bird” should more appropriately be called the “Fruit Poop Bird.” The fruit just goes in one end and comes out the other. We released the beautiful cusinga into the wild where it could use its fruit-pooping ability as a natural mechanism for dispersing seeds across the countryside, thus performing a valuable service for the environment by helping to restore forest in areas where the natural cover has been lost.

It is a miracle that chestnut-mandibled toucans can even fly. That enormous beak sticking out in front causes them to fly in a position that looks like they’re about to take a nose dive. Toucans normally land on the lower limbs of a tree and hop up from branch to branch, taking off again near the top. They use this strategy to gain altitude, since it is extremely difficult for them to ascend while flying. The beginning of a typical flight pattern is a dive, which is probably necessary to pick up enough speed to remain airborne. Next, the large black and yellow bird levels off for the middle portion of the flight. Landing is preceded by an abrupt ascent or flaring, which slows and then halts forward motion. Most chestnut-mandibled toucan flights are short, less than 100 meters (about 109 yards).

If toucans are the lumbering old transport planes of the bird world, then the swifts, swallows and martins are the fighter jets, and the flycatchers are the stunt planes. Flycatchers are a large and diverse family of which thirty-eight different species have been identified on Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. I have always marveled that these relatively small birds can attack large birds of prey such as hawks and falcons and get away with it. A flycatcher is so agile that it can fly off a perch in a horizontal line, grab an insect in midair and turn around and fly back to the perch without dropping an inch. The flycatcher would obviously have to stop in midair to accomplish this feat. I am convinced that it must be an optical illusion, but I have seen this happen many times and it never fails to amaze me.

With all of this in mind, you can imagine how I felt the first time I saw a pair of flycatchers called great kiskadees (Pitangus sulphuratus) dive-bombing a chestnut-mandibled toucan. To my way of thinking the poor, beautiful, awkward, inoffensive fruit-eater was being unmercifully attacked by a terrorist squad of daredevils. However, in nature, as in human affairs, things are never quite as simple they first appear. A year later I had the opportunity to witness the other side of the story. One day while driving down the road I caught sight of a toucan flying toward the jungle from across a clearing. I had grown accustomed to seeing the harassment of these beautiful birds by various species of flycatchers, and I wasn’t surprised to see a pair of kiskadees attacking. As the birds approached, I noticed that the kiskadees’ aggressive behavior was inordinately desperate and frenzied. Then, to my horror, I saw why. My poor, beautiful, awkward, inoffensive fruit eating toucan had turned into a baby-killer. It was carrying two kiskadee nestlings in its boat shaped bill. One was severely mangled and probably dead, and the other was badly maimed but still alive and struggling. That incident was truly the beginning of my education into the harsh realities of nature. Another incident that took place several years later but with different actors served to further develop my understanding of the brutal natural pressures endured by wildlife.

The lineated woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus) is an exceptionally beautiful bird that looks like Woody Woodpecker. One of our guides at Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge once noticed that a pair of them were pecking away at a dead tree trunk close to one of the trails. It took about a week for the woodpeckers to hollow out an adequate nesting cavity. Next the female laid her eggs, and both took turns incubating them. Soon thereafter a pair of chestnut-mandibled toucans started hanging around the tree. They harassed the pair of woodpeckers for two days until finally one of the toucans managed to stick its bill into the hole and grab the woodpecker that was sitting on the nest. That toucan dragged the woodpecker out of the nest by its big red head. Then the other one grabbed the woodpecker’s feet, and the two of them worked together, repeatedly bashing the woodpecker against the tree trunk until it quit resisting. Then they threw it on the ground and turned their attention to the nesting cavity. After eating the eggs one of the large toucans squeezed inside the hole and tried it out for size. A Hacienda Barú guide recovered the badly bruised and mangled woodpecker, but it died within a few hours. The next day, the pair of toucans apparently decided that the cavity didn’t meet their requirements and abandoned it. A month later a pair of fiery-billed aracaris tried out the nesting cavity, but they abandoned it after three days. In human terms, this event is tantamount to a squatter killing the owner of a newly constructed home and stealing the house, only to abandon it a day later because it didn’t meet his expectations.

I still love toucans, but I no longer have any illusions about who is good and who is bad in nature. From the moment that I saw the baby flycatchers in that toucan’s bill my whole fantasy about relationships in nature came tumbling down. Everything became crystal clear. There are no villains nor victims nor good nor bad. Everything simply is. Every living thing has to eat, and that’s what life is all about. Sooner or later we all go back to the earth and the nutrients get used again by another life form. Dead matter gets broken down by the predators, scavengers, insects, worms, bacteria, molds and fungi, and the basic components are restructured by the plants, thus continuing the cycle. That, my friends, is the story of life on this earth. We all came from the earth, and we all return to it, fueling the continuous cycle of life. Nothing escapes, not animal nor plant nor even mineral. It is all part of this planet. You can think of the earth as a living, functioning organism, a marvelous recycling center that recycles everything from fallen trees to dead woodpeckers, because that’s what it really is.