Significance to humans

The group of birds that scientists have named for a mythical deity are prominently featured in the myths and folklore of many native cultures. Historically, native people have used toucan and woodpecker feathers and beaks as ceremonial ornaments; these large birds were also hunted for food.

With regard to popular culture in the developed world in the twenty-first century, toucans are probably best known as the mascot for a popular breakfast cereal that is (appropriately) fruit-flavored. Woody Woodpecker, the impudent cartoon character with the trademarked laugh, was created in the 1940s by Walter Lantz for Universal Studios and is still popular with children decades later. Meanwhile, their parents may consider woodpeckers to be pests because the birds sometimes damage homes when they drum on roofs or siding—either to signal possession of a territory, or to get at concealed insects infesting the home. Perhaps the most famous case of woodpecker damage occurred in 1995, when northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) in Florida pecked four-inch-diameter holes in the foam insulation covering the fuel tanks of the space shuttle Discovery.

Scientists, however, generally regard the piciform birds as beneficial to ecosystems. For example, fruit-eating species such as toucans and barbets play a key role in maintaining tropical forests because they disperse tree seeds into areas favorable for germination. Woodpeckers help suppress populations of pest insects in forests, and their abandoned nesting cavities provided crucial nest sites for such hole-nesting birds as bluebirds as well as mammals such as flying squirrels. Migratory hummingbirds are often sustained in spring by the insects attracted to the sweet maple sap dripping from holes drilled by sapsuckers.

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