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Usually when one thinks of a bird with a large beak, one thinks first and foremost of the pelican. That would most likely have been true of the Tennessee poet, humorist, ornithologist and natural farmer Dixon Lanier (Abernathy) Merritt (1879-1972), who penned the following fairly well known limerick:
A curious bird is the pelican;
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week,
Though I’m damned if I know how the helican!
(I say ‘fairly well known’, because Mr. Merritt’s limerick is almost always improperly quoted — as it probably is above — and is also often mistakenly attributed to that other better-known humorist poet, Ogden Nash.)
While it is true that pelicans have sizable beaks, usually that beak or bill reaches no more than about half the bird’s body length. In fact, what we mistake for the bird’s seemingly exceedingly large beak volume is due primarily to the expandable skinned pouch appended to the bottom bill, and not to the bill or beak itself.
If we travel to the tropics, we might encounter one or more of the colorful toucan species. Toucans grow bills that routinely meet or exceed half their full-body length, and for most species that beak will also be broad and multi-colored, giving it an even larger appearance in relation to the typically dark and stubby toucan body. So, when one considers beak size in relation to body size, the toucan is also a respectable competitor.
Still other candidates for nature’s largest bill or beak are the various species of hornbill. These tropical and subtropical birds of Asia and Africa typically have long downward-curved bills, sometimes with another counterpointing ‘casque’ (or knobby, helmet-shaped or upward-swooping bill extension) attached to the upper mandible. The beaks of hornbills are large and weighty enough that they have been accompanied by the evolutionary advantages of several fused neck vertebrae and substantial neck muscles. Some species of the bird will use their bills and ivory- or bone-filled casques as battering rams and weapons in aerial jousting and mating battles. But, as with pelicans and toucans, the beaks or bills of the hornbill — even adding in all the dimension and weight of casques and helmets and such — never get much beyond half of the bird’s total length or weight.
Here, however, we see the champion of the ‘world’s largest beak’ contest: The All Beak. Were one to measure the All Beak, one would find a beak length of 31 cm, and a body length of just over 32 cm. If one should then weigh the All Beak — even after a full meal — one would obtain a body weight of perhaps 118 grams, but a beak weight of fully 107 grams. (The eggs of the All Beak, usually laid in clutches of 3 to 19, are surprisingly small, weighing in at just a gram or two, with a diameter no greater than 1.2 cm.)
Like the toucan and various hornbill species, the All Beak carries a richly colored beak, one that oddly seems to follow the fashion styles of the day. This particular specimen is sporting the minimalistic white with black flecks of the ‘Yoko Ono’ bill style.
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