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TALES FROM TULUM, VOLUME 1: THE TOUCAN

At the first sight of light, the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula come to life. Birds welcome the morning with a symphony of chirps and the sounds of cicadas surround you. The air in the seaside town of Tulum, Mexico is usually heavy with the weight of salt and water, but for me the humidity is a welcome change.

Located at the Southeastern most tip of Mexico (and boarding Belize and Guatemala to the north), the Yucatan is marked by its lush forests, sandy beaches, vibrant culture and distinct wildlife. The dense jungles of the Tulum are home to spider monkeys, jaguars, a cluster of over-sized insects, and brightly-colored tropical birds.


Toco toucan) the same type as Toucan Sam) pictured in a Papaya tree. Photo Source: Wiki Commons.

As I walked through the city where ancient Mayan ruins tower over the Caribbean Sea, my eye caught sight of an old childhood friend— the toucan. In person, toucans are truly a sight to behold! Their giant bills and flamboyantly colored feathers are much more impressive than the illustrated icon “Toucan Sam” ever let on. During the encounter (photographed below) my new friend found its way to the nearest tabletop and perched for a photo.  Studying it closely I found nearly every color of the rainbow spread between its plumage and beak.


Table top Keel-billed toucan in Tulum, Mexico. Photo Credit: Lola West

Traveling in small flocks, toucans are extremely sociable birds who prefer the company of community to solitude. Best known for its gargantuan bill, the keel-billed toucan, aptly referred to as the rainbow-billed toucan, can be identified in the wild by its bright-yellow throat and cheeks, the vibrant red feathers under its tail, and its yellow-green face. Like many of the 40 types of toucans living today, the keel-bill is native to the jungles of Central and South America. Residents of these areas become accustomed to seeing a diversity of tropical birds including the McCaw, Amazonian Parrots, and if lucky, the Resplendent Quetzal.

A Toucan in Flight

The keel-bill spends most of its time hopping between tree branches in search of a hollow trunk. Surprisingly, these birds have difficulty taking flight. Though some may credit the toucan’s disproportionately-sized bill for their challenges in the sky, it is over-sized wings that make travel so cumbersome for these tropical birds. With a wingspan of 43″ to 60,” keel-billed toucans have larger wings than most other toucan breeds. The weight of their wings literally weighs them down when in flight.

Perks of Having a Big Beak

A toucan’s bill is much lighter and more useful than one might imagine. Due to an intricate protein structure and a lot of bone support, the striking bills are extremely lightweight and studies may have discovered the reason for their big bills. According to Canadian researchers, a toucan’s beak can be used to help cool the birds during an Amazonian heatwave.  Blood vessels transport heat from the toucan’s body to its beak where it dissipates into the air. Previous research has also suggested that dinosaurs may have been fitted with similar natural radiators. Since Paleontologists have  determined that avian dinosaurs evolved into birds, these suggestions might not be too far off.

Thanks to it bill, the toucan’s diet is pretty broad. Keen-bills are omnivores whose diet largely consists of large quantities of fruit and berries. However, due to the amazing agility of its bill, this toucan also feasts on bugs, lizards, bird eggs, and tree frogs. Fortunately for the birds, there is no shortage of reptiles, bugs, or amphibians in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Stay tuned for more stories from our time in Tulum and remember to get outside and explore your world.


Keel-billed toucan spotted in the Costa Rican rainforest.Their bill of makes up about one-third of its body length. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

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