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The Toucan’s Bodacious Beak

Creation on Display

by Dan Breeding on April 1, 2014
Audio Version

Imagine having a protuberance on your face that reached down to your belly. That’d be a bit awkward. But when God designs a bird with a bodacious beak, you can be sure it’s something to strut about.

If you were designing a bird, what would you make its main feature? Perhaps a huge wingspan to soar above the mountains or colorful feathers to delight the eye. How about a lovely voice to fill the forests with song?

God blessed each kind of bird, like all of His other creatures, to prosper according to His plan. More than three hundred Bible references highlight the marvels of birds and God’s provision for them, including the hawk’s knowledge of the air currents, the eagle’s strong wings and sharp eyes (Job 39:26–29), and God’s provision for the raven (Psalm 147:9) and the sparrows (Matthew 10:29). God created every winged bird according to its kind, and He knows and cares for them all (Genesis 1:21; Psalm 50:11).

But back to our hypothetical bird. Who would design a bird with a beak half as long as the rest of its body? No verse in the Bible praises a bird’s majestic schnoz: “See now, his strength is in his lips. He moves his beak like a cedar . . .

Yet one kind of bird matches that description. When we think of a toucan, the first thing that comes to mind is that cornice on its face.

The sheer oddity of the toucan’s bill makes us want to know what God was thinking. What purpose could such a beak serve? Well, God does nothing on a whim. He created this creature with unique characteristics to thrive in its unique environment. Several dozen species of toucans have done quite well making a home for themselves in the Caribbean, southern Mexico, and Central and South America. Their glorious beak fits the bill with beauty, strength, and precision.

Follow the Nose

While the toucan’s beak serves many useful purposes, sniffing isn’t one of them.

With his extraordinary ability to sniff out hidden bowls of Froot Loops, Toucan Sam and his oversized striped beak are unstoppable in TV commercials. But this jovial image has a slight problem. While Sam’s exaggerated beak serves many purposes, sniffing isn’t one of them!

The toucan uses its beak for defense, food preparation, courtship, conserving energy, and regulating body temperature. But not for sniffing.

Colorful & Practical

To understand the purpose for this seemingly obnoxious beak, let’s start with the most obvious feature: the loud, painted designs. You might think they would draw unwanted attention to the hapless bird. Quite the contrary. In the vibrant foliage and shimmering lights of the rainforest, that eye-catching splash actually camouflages the toucan, hiding it from the prying eyes of hawks, jaguars, snakes, and man.

The beak also plays a large role in mating rituals. For instance, the male and female will mince morsels of fruit and toss them to one another. Unlike many other species of birds, both male and female toucans have the same beautiful beaks and plumage. They don’t exhibit dimorphism, or difference in color, pattern, or brightness between sexes.

Okay, so the toucan’s comical appearance and splashy colors have the benefit of attracting a mate and hiding from predators. But surely this heavy and unwieldy front end has major disadvantages. Well, God’s careful design goes much deeper than the eye can see.

Strong & Powerful


© Eduardo Mariano Rivero |

In the forest canopy, the toucan’s serrated beak cuts easily through tropical fruits, including papayas, bananas, mangoes, melons, and berries. These natural tongs also bring those snacks within easy reach. In fact, the toucan can snatch food from holes that other birds can’t get to or branches too thin to support its weight.

What a life! It conserves energy by doing all that snacking while standing in one place.

Though it may look unbalanced, the toucan’s beak is actually very lightweight. Tiny, bone-like fibers are sandwiched between honeycomb layers of keratin. This bracing makes it both light and strong, both rigid and energy absorbent. Indeed, engineers have even been studying how to model this unique design to create safer vehicles and lighter aircraft.

Efficient & Comfy

Besides its strength, the toucan’s beak is criss-crossed with tiny blood vessels that make it a highly efficient cooling and heating system. Increasing blood flow through the uninsulated beak releases heat, and constricting blood flow during cold weather preserves heat.

You might be surprised to learn that toucans are pretty agile, too, even with a big radiator hanging out front. They can twist their beaks around onto their backs, if necessary, to slide into their nests in tree hollows. Once inside, their uniquely designed vertebrae allow their tails to flip up to their heads while they sleep, all curled up and cozy.

Creation cries out God’s name through such interesting and unusual designs. How much more should we humans, created in His image (Genesis 1:26), bring glory to our Creator and Savior, no matter how unusual our looks, gifts, and talents might be (Psalm 139:13–16). They are all gifts of God.

Did You Know . . .

  • Toucans do not migrate or fly long distances like most birds. With their short wingspans, they mostly stay in the thick canopy and hop from treetop to treetop.
  • Toucans are playful birds, often fencing with their beaks or wrestling.
  • The toucan’s tongue is very narrow and more than six inches long. It looks almost like a gray feather, frayed on each side, increasing the toucan’s sensitivity to taste.
  • Toucans play a critical role in dispersing seeds of fruit trees. With its ripping power, the toucan’s serrated beak can peel and open fruit that is closed— or indehiscent (in-duh-HISSsent)— releasing the seeds.
  • Although toucans are mainly frugivorous (fruit-eating), they also sometimes eat eggs, lizards, insects, and even young birds.
  • Although the toucan’s beak is strong and powerful, it is not much for digging or excavating. Toucans nest in tree hollows excavated by other animals, such as woodpeckers.
  • Toucans get most of their water from fruit, so when they are kept as pets, it is vital to feed them lots of fresh fruit every day.
  • In captivity, toucans may suffer from too much iron, a condition known as hemochromatosis, or iron-storage disease. So they often require a diet free of iron.

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Ramphastidae
Size: 4–20 ounces (110–570 g), 11–29 inches (29–75 cm)
Habitat: The rainforest canopies of the Caribbean, southern Mexico, and Central and South America

Dan Breeding is the founder of Creatures of Creation and Wild Animal Encounters. Dan has a degree in wildlife education and animal training and has made numerous appearances with his animals on television and at the White House.

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