Among the most distinctive of all birds, the toucan is a rainforest icon. Toucans are marketing symbols for a
breakfast cereal, hotels, travel and phone companies, and even a beer company. Its improbable beak or bill is
its identifying characteristic, shared by the 40 or so species of toucans.
The birds in this family (Ramphastidae) have huge, colorful bills and colorful plumage. The body is
relatively robust and the toucan's wings are short and rounded. Thus, they do not fly well. The flight is
undulating, with the bird rising with a few quick wing beats and descending on a short glide.
A unique feature is their ability to fold back the tail onto the back. This enables them to roost in
treeholes that would otherwise be too small to accommodate the bird and its huge beak.
When perching, two toes project towards the front and two toward the back, a condition called zygodactyly.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Toucans live in almost any kind of forest in the neotropics from Central America to northern Argentina. The
birds reach their highest species diversity in the Amazon rainforest, where new species may await discovery.
FEEDING AND DIET
The toucan's bill is the means by which the toucan gathers its food, primarily fruit. Palm fruits in
particular are favored, such as those of Mauritia,
whereas figs and guava are also eaten, among others. They also eat insects and vertebrates such as small
lizards and snakes. However, many other birds consume these foods without the giant bill to help them,
begging the question: what is the function of the beak?
The beak may play a role in breeding but the more likely use is to allow it to exploit a feeding niche. Some
observations suggest that the beak is an adaptation that allows the toucan to delve deep into treeholes. This
gives it access to prey such as nestlings and bats that may roost in such cavitiesa rather sinister
behavior for such a cute bird! Another unique feature of toucans is a fringed tongue, a feature it shares
with woodpeckers. Other authors suggest that the beak serves as a threat display to frighten birds whose
nests they plunder.
The toucan's courtship display is unusual among birds, in that it uses objects. Both male and female
throw berries at each other or play catch by tossing the berries from one to the other with their beaks. The
color of the bill may indicate breeding condition but it is not related to gender recognition, as the beaks
are the same in the male and female.
All toucans nest in tree cavities. Smaller species, such as aracaris nest in holes excavated by
woodpeckers whereas large toucans (such as the yellow-ridged toucan, see photo).
will choose any well-hidden cavity. Aracaris often nest communally, presumably to spread the risk from
The clutch size is two to four white eggs, up to six in some species. The eggs are relatively small for the
birds' size, for reasons that are not clear. After about three weeks incubation, the chicks hatch.
Lacking down, the chicks have red naked skin. The feathers grow slowly, so that even after a month, bare skin
may still be showing.
The young typically fledge within two months of hatching. Parents continue to feed the fledglings up to 10
days after they leave the nest.
As a group, toucans' conservation prospects are not well-known. It's difficult to reliably estimate
populations given their nesting habits and preference for densely forested habitat. Officially, three species
of toucans are threatened and one is endangered. However, habitat destruction is a widespread threat to local