What do Toucans Really Think?

Morning ritual in Panama: take coffee cup to the chair at the back door landing, open the sketchbook, raise the binoculars. The forest patch behind the house looks like a life-sized diorama of a jungle scene.

Byrsonima spicata, “Nance” tree, with yellow, orange and reddish flower spikes and semi-edible fruit that gets pulped and soaked with sugar water into a local drink that either tastes great or not, depending on your sense of taste.  

A Nance tree blooms right outside our upstairs bedroom. It’s a favorite spot for tanagers and hummingbirds and crazy-eyed lineated woodpeckers. It’s also a diving platform for collared aracaris, small toucans that like to fling themselves each morning against the bedroom window, over and over. It could be a mirror effect/competition thing. But I’d had more respect for the intelligence of aracaris. They  just seem clever- even devious- with their strange goat eyes. They look around with purpose and then, after careful thought, leap into the window.

Toucans have always seemed less crafty than aracaris. They’re more outgoing and playful; they’re confident, happy clowns in cereal box colors. But yesterday I saw toucans do two things I’d never seen before.

A collared aracari looks for trouble in the Nance tree. Sketched in between window-smashing bouts using a pencil on paper. And binoculars.

One: I saw a branch break under the weight of a chestnut-mandibled toucan. The branch was at least eight feet long and looked solid, but when the toucan landed the branch cracked and fell. The toucan flew safely off, but the bird must have weighed more than it looked, like a gold nugget.

Two: a pair of keel-billed toucans flopped out of the sky and hit the ground nearly at my feet. They’d knocked something out of the canopy, a lizard or a beetle or a baby bird, and followed it down. Whatever it was, it burrowed fast into the leaf litter. The toucans stood over it on their steel-blue shanks and stirred the leaves with the tips of their broad-sword bills. Suddenly, they didn’t look so much like happy clowns. They looked like a pair of intelligent predators, cooly waiting for their prey to make its last move.

Nance tree flowers, pen and ink, Latin binomial scrawled in before I looked up the spelling. 

But then the toucans (actually, they were some other toucans, and it was much later that day) went and smashed into the bedroom window a few times, just like the aracaris. Maybe they’re playing a game, and maybe not. Who knows what really drives a bird?

Happy Friday.

One of the bromeliads growing on the nance tree, in the morning light. Watercolor over pencil on Stillman & Birn Epsilon series sketchbook, 8 1/2″ x 11″



3 thoughts on “What do Toucans Really Think?

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