Toucans: Ramphastidae

views updated

TOUCANS: Ramphastidae



Toucans are the symbol of the American tropics and very easy to recognize. They are large, brightly colored birds with very large bills that are also brightly colored. You are not likely to confuse a toucan with any other bird.

A toucan's bill often curves downward at the tip. Though large, it is very lightweight. Serrations along the edge look like teeth. Toucans are distinctive in other ways. They have a long tongue with a brushy tip. The feet have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward, like a woodpecker's. (Most birds have three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing back). The skin around the eye is bare, without feathers, and often brightly colored. The joint at the base of the tail is unusually flexible. Males and females look much alike, although the male usually is heavier and has a longer bill.


Toucans are found from north-central Mexico south through Central America to northern Argentina in South America. Colombia has the largest number of toucan species, twenty-one in all. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil each are home to seventeen toucan species. Rivers often form barriers separating different species because toucans don't like to make long flights over water.


Most toucans live in tropical rainforest, usually at low elevations. They require mature forest with full-grown trees, big enough and old enough to develop cavities, holes, that toucans can use as nest sites. They also need forests with plenty of fruit trees.


Back in the eighteenth century, the first European naturalists to see toucan specimens (animals collected for study) concluded these birds must catch fish with their massive, serrated bills. In fact, forest fruits make up 95 percent of the toucan diet. Common foods include guavas, figs, red pepper fruits, and palm fruits. To eat, a toucan holds a fruit in the tip of its beak, then tosses its head backward so the fruit falls down its throat. After digesting the pulp, the toucan regurgitates (re-GER-jih-tates; throws up) the hard pits and seeds. In this way, forest seeds are spread to new places.

Along with fruit, toucans also catch and eat small animals including songbirds, crickets, cicadas (suh-KAY-duhz), spiders, termites, lizards, toads, frogs, and snakes. They raid eggs and nestlings from other birds' nests. Some species catch bats as they sleep in daytime roosts. Some follow columns of army ants to eat the insects stirred up by the ant swarms.


Most toucans live year round in the same area. A few species make annual migrations between mountainside forests, where they spend spring and summer, and lowlands, where they spend fall and winter. Their main predators, animals that hunt them for food, are forest eagles, hawks, and owls. Monkeys, snakes, and weasels raid toucan nests. Small songbirds will mob or chase after the toucans that raid their nests.

Toucans prefer to stay high in the treetops. They don't like to descend to the forest floor. They drink rainwater from treetop plants called bromeliads and bathe by fluttering against wet leaves. They also like to take sunbaths. Most species avoid flying over open water. They are weak flyers and can tire, fall into the water, and drown.

Toucans often live in small flocks of about a dozen birds or fewer. It's common to see a group gather high in a tree to vocalize together, in the early morning, evening, or after a rainstorm. The calls sound like harsh grunts and croaks. Group members also interact by preening each other. To cross an open space, birds go one at a time. Many toucans roost in tree cavities. A sleeping toucan turns its head so its bill rests on its back, then bends its tail forward over the back so that it looks like a ball of feathers.

Members of larger species do not breed until they are three or four years old. Males often court females by feeding them berries. Often, the pair also preens one another. Most toucans nest in tree holes. They may remove chunks of very rotten wood but do not really dig a hole like woodpeckers do. Large toucans often use natural holes. Small toucans use abandoned woodpecker holes. One pair may use the same hole year after year. Both parents incubate the white eggs for about sixteen days. They also share the work of brooding the nestlings and bringing insects. The young birds fledge, grow their flying feathers, after about fifty days, but the parents keep feeding them for another eight to ten days.


Brazilian rulers once wore ceremonial robes of toucan feathers. Amazonian Indians still use toucan feathers and bills as decorations. Toucans are also hunted for food and taken from nests to be raised as pets. In some areas they are considered pests on orchard crops. In Great Britain, a toucan was the mascot for a popular beer, and in the United States a blue toucan is the mascot for a well-known breakfast cereal.


Hollywood movies often use toucan sounds in the background. These weird-sounding calls create a jungle atmosphere. The calls are very loud and will carry through the dense forest. And they are very strange. Channel-billed toucans croak. Emerald toucanets grunt. White-throated toucans yip like dogs. Other species rattle and squawk and even purr. Often, a pair of birds will perch high in a tree to call for an hour or more, twice a day, at dawn or dusk. Their duet is a classic rainforest sound.


One species, the yellow-browed toucanet of Peru, is listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Three other species are considered Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction: the saffron toucanet of central South America, the plate-billed toucan, and the gray-breasted mountain-toucan. Habitat loss to logging and agriculture is a problem because most species need undisturbed forest. Selective logging sounds environmentally responsible but removes large trees that would support strangler figs, an important source of fruit. New roads being built through the forest could isolate populations, because toucans don't like to cross wide open spaces.


Physical characteristics: This is one of four species of mountain toucan. All are a mix of blue, gray, and brown overall and have red feathers under the tail. This species can be identified by its colorful bill: red and black at the tip and yellow-green at the base, where there is a black, thumbprint-shaped mark. The black head is set off from the chestnut-brown back by a pale gray collar. Individuals may be 18 to 19 inches (46 to 48 centimeters) long and weigh 8.6 to 13.1 ounces (244 to 370 grams).

Geographic range: These birds live in the west slope of the north-central Andes from central Colombia through Ecuador to southeast Peru.

Habitat: This species lives at higher elevations than other toucans, in humid mountaintop forests. Birds spend much of their time in the tallest trees.

Diet: Fruits and berries. This species is more willing than most to leave the high canopy, leaves of the tallest trees, to feed on raspberries in the understory, area beneath the tallest trees.

Behavior and reproduction: The behavior has not been well studied. Birds feed alone or in small groups of up to six individuals. They move quietly, not like most toucans. They have been seen feeding with other bird species including tanagers, thrushes, and blackbirds. Little is known about their breeding habits.

Gray-breasted mountain toucans and people: This species lives in remote areas and is of little significance to humans.

Conservation status: Considered Near Threatened by the IUCN. In some areas its high-altitude forest habitat is being cleared for farms, mining, grazing, or wood-cutting for fuel. ∎


Physical characteristics: This is the largest of the toucans and very easy to identify. Toco toucans are black overall except for a white throat. The truly enormous bill is orange with a black oval spot at the tip. The skin around the eyes is also orange. Individuals average 21.5 to 23.8 inches (55 to 61 centimeters) long and may weigh 17.7 to 30.4 ounces (500 to 860 grams).

Geographic range: These toucans live from the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil southward to Paraguay, northern Bolivia, and northern Argentina.

Habitat: Toco toucans can live both in undisturbed forest and in secondary forests as well as plantations and palm groves.

Diet: Like all toucans, toco toucans eat a variety of fruits, but mostly figs. They also eat caterpillars, termites, and eggs and nestlings of other birds.

Behavior and reproduction: Toco toucans are more likely than other species to drop down to the forest floor to feed on fallen fruit. They are more willing to fly across open water and through open areas. The voice is a deep grunt. Individuals may feed alone or in small flocks. They are very agile and often hang head-down like oversized chickadees to get at hard-to-reach fruits.

Pairs preen each other and fence with their bills like swordfighters. They often nest in palm-tree cavities and can dig the hole a little deeper. They also nest in burrows, which they dig in soft, sandy riverbanks, or nest in tree-termite nests that have been opened by woodpeckers. A typical clutch is two to four white eggs. The male and female take turns incubating for eighteen days. The nestlings are fed insects at first. They fledge after forty-three to fifty-two days.

Toco toucans and people: This species is often depicted in art. It is the classic symbol of the rainforest. Toco toucans are still hunted for food and young birds are taken as pets.

Conservation status: This species is not considered to be threatened. It is adapted to living in secondary forests and plantations, and there is some evidence that toco toucans are moving into newly cleared areas in Amazonia. ∎



del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott, and Jordi Sargatal, eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 7, Jacamars to Woodpeckers. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 2002.

Fjeldså, Jon, and Niels Krabbe. Birds of the High Andes. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen Zoological Musuem, 1990.

Short, Lester L., and Jennifer F. M. Horne. Toucans, Barbets and Honeyguides. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Skutch, A. F. Trogons, Laughing Falcons, and Other Neotropical Birds. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1999.

Stotz, Douglas F., John Fitzpatrick, Theodore A. Parker II, and Debra K. Moskovits. Neotropical Birds: Ecology and Conservation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.