Tambopata National Reserve is one of the best places in southeastern Peru to spot toucans. With their oversized and brightly colored bills –measuring up to one third of their body length- toucans are perhaps South America’s most easily recognizable bird.
Seven species of toucan have been reported within the borders of Tambopata National Reserve. The largest of these species are the Channel-billed (Ramphastos vitellinus) and White-throated (Ramphastos tucanus) toucans. The former is brightly colored, with a vivid yellow breast and electric blue markings around the base of the bill. It measures up to 48 centimeters in length, while its bill may be up to 14 centimeters long. This toucan’s range extends all the way from Trinidad to Peru and Bolivia. The latter is white-breasted and has a huge red bill, accounting for up to 22 centimeters of its 50 centimeter length. Its range extends from Venezuela to Bolivia.
Other toucan species in Tambopata National Reserve include the Chestnut-eared aracari (Pteroglossus castanotis), with its yellowish-white breast crossed by a red band and distinctive dark, orange-topped bill. One particularly striking smaller toucan species is the Curl-crested aracari (Pteroglossus beauharnaesii). It is often spotted in Tambopata National Reserve and can be distinguished by the black curled feathers on its head, the blue skin around the eyes, yellowish-white facial feathers, multicolored bill with an orange tip, bright red back, yellow breast crossed by a single red band, and long greenish-brown tail. Other toucan species present in Tambopata National Reserve include the Lettered aracari (Pteroglossus inscriptus), Emerald toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) and the Golden-collared toucanet (Selenidera reinwardtii).
Toucans are highly vocal, social birds, usually found in small flocks in the high rainforest canopy, which is their preferred habitat. They are omnivorous, feeding on fruit, insects, lizards and other birds’ eggs.
While the toucan’s bill certainly serves as an attractive feature when seeking a mate, it is also of practical use. Both male and female adult toucans possess oversized bills, although across species the female’s bill is shorter than the male’s, and they are known to pass food between their bills as part of their mating ritual. Toucans are not born with large bills; instead, they develop gradually and only become full-sized among juveniles. The toucan’s enormous bill is serrated like a hunting knife, meaning that the bird can use it to tear apart its food.
Among the indigenous peoples of South America’s rainforests, toucans are often seen as sacred birds, serving as messengers between the world inhabited by humankind and the world of the spirits, much like the role of the condor in high Andean mythology.