The Toucan: A Bright and Bold Bird with a Bill to Match

The Toucan

Bold, bright, and with a bill to match, this is the toucan.

Well known in the Western world for its large multicolored bill four times the size of its head and curious eyes, this species of bird has lent its image to many TV shows, films, and advertisements.

Playful and intelligent, the toucan can give their owners many hours of wonderful companionship.

In fact, toucans have many advantages over parrots as pets as they don’t bite that hard or chew furniture and, more importantly, don’t scream.

But what makes this bird species so desirable as an exotic pet?

Sure, they are tireless and friendly entertainers that can be taught various tricks, but is this species of wild bird one you want to see in a cage and not out in the wild?

This article looks at the toucan as a species, its fascinating background, and its personality.

About The Toucan


Strangely enough, in their native regions, these birds, with their bright, almost comical bill, are associated with evil spirits.

For in some religions of South And Central America, the parent of a newborn child (the father) should not consume the flesh of the toucan as it might enchant the newborn and make it fade away.

In fact, indigenous people of the regions where they are found often regard the bird as sacred and believe they are conduits between the world of the living and the spirits. 

But all that aside, what makes the toucan a species of bird that is hard to overlook?


Toucans are part of the order Piciformes, which contains nine families of primarily arboreal (tree-living) birds.

Their New-world family is known as Ramphastidae, and distant relatives include the likes of the American barbets and woodpeckers.

Interestingly the name ‘‘toucan’’ was derived from the extinct Tupi word ‘‘tukana,’’ which was spoken by the aboriginal Tupi people of Brazil, and the Guaraní word ‘‘tukã.’’

As such, the word toucan is the common name to denote any of the large-billed, long-tailed tropical birds of the family Ramphastidae with their huge colorful bills, brightly colored plumage, and zygodactyl feet.

Toucan Types


Within the toucan family, over 40 odd species are classified into five genera.

Aulacorhynchus (Green Toucanets)

  • Wagler’s (Aulacorhynchus wagleri)
  • Emerald (Aulacorhynchus prasinus)
  • Blue-throated (Aulacorhynchus caeruleogularis)
  • Greyish-throated
  • Black-throated (Aulacorhynchus atrogularis)
  • Crimson-rumped (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus)
  • Yellow-browed (Aulacorhynchus huallagae)
  • Blue-banded (Aulacorhynchus coeruleicinctis)
  • White-throated (Aulacorhynchus albivitta)
  • Yellow-billed
  • Groove-billed (Aulacorhynchus sulcatus)
  • Chestnut-tipped (Aulacorhynchus derbianus)
  • Tepui (Aulacorhynchus whitelianus)

Pteroglossus (Araçari)

  • Saffron
  • Green (Pteroglossus viridis)
  • Humboldt’s
  • Lettered
  • Collared (Pteroglossus torquatus)
  • Stripe-billed (Pteroglossus sanguineus)
  • Pale-billed (Pteroglossus erythropygius)
  • Fiery-billed (Pteroglossus frantzii)
  • Black-necked (Pteroglossus aracari)
  • Chestnut-eared (Pteroglossus castanotis)
  • Many-banded (Pteroglossus pluricinctus)
  • Ivory-billed (Pteroglossus azara)
  • Curl-crested (Pteroglossus beauharnaisii)
  • Western Red-necked (Pteroglossus bitorquatus)
  • Eastern Red-necked

Selenidera (Dichromatic Toucanets)

toucan bird
  • Yellow-eared
  • Guianan
  • Gould’s
  • Spot-billed
  • Tawny-tufted

Andigena (Mountain Toucans)

  • Grey-breasted
  • Plate-billed
  • Hooded
  • Black-billed

Ramphastos (Typical Toucans)

  • Toco
  • Yellow-throated (Ramphastos ambiguus)
  • Cuvier’s
  • Red-billed
  • Keel-billed (Ramphastos sulfuratus)
  • Choco (Ramphastos brevis)
  • Citron-throated
  • Yellow-ridged
  • Channel-billed (Ramphastos vitellinus)
  • Green-billed (Ramphastos dicolorus)
  • Ariel
  • Red-breasted

Physical Description

toco toucan

Besides their brightly colored and large lightweight bills, which make them instantly recognizable, Toucans have other defining characteristics.

What Does a Toucan Look Like?

A toucan’s body is short and compact and can be likened to a crow’s body.

And although mostly glossy black, the body can be decorated with shiny oranges, reds, greens, yellow, and bright white, depending on the species.

They have a rounded tail with short, stiff tail feathers called rectrices, which can vary in length depending on the species from half of its length to the entire length of its body.

In addition, these forest-dwelling birds have short necks and small wings as they only need to travel short distances.

In fact, their wings are about the same span from their bill to their tail tip.

Interestingly the toucan’s tongue, which is narrow and grey, is up to six inches long and frayed on each side. The legs of the toucan are short and strong, with two toes forward and two toes back, referred to as zygodactyl feet.

Their giant, colorful beak, regarded as the hallmark of their species, can measure more than half the length of a toucan’s body.

Yet despite its size, the beak of this bird is very light, composed of keratin, the same material as human fingernails. Stoutly constructed, the toucan’s beak is hollow, barring a network of fibers (trabeculae) that run through the top for support and strength.

Toucan Skin

toucan skin

Interestingly enough, a toucan’s skin is translucent under all its feathers, enabling you to see its bone structure.

What is the Size of a Toucan?

Toucans can range in size from the smallest species, the Lettered aracari (Pteroglossus inscriptus), at 11.5 inches and 4.6 ounces, to the largest toucans, the Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), at 29 inches and one and a half pounds in weight.

Toucans Habitat

The Toucan color

Toucans are native to neotropical regions on the planet and can be found in the rainforests from Southern Mexico through Central and South America.

As such, this bird species mostly lives in primary tropical forests with large old trees that have holes in them for breeding purposes and only enter secondary forests to forage for food.

While species of the Mountain toucan can reach climates at higher altitudes in the Andes and the Toco toucan, the only non-forest living toucan can be found in savannah with open woodlands and forest patches.

Interestingly enough, toucans seldom make trips to the forest floor and spend most of their time in the forest canopy.

Behavior and Ecology

what do toucans look like

Toucans are highly social birds often found traveling in loose noisy flocks of up to 20 or more birds.

In fact, while digesting their food which can take up to 75 minutes, these birds often spend their time on social activities such as sparring with their bills, tag chasing, and calling.

Toucan Diet

Toucans are primarily fruit-eating (frugivorous) birds but are opportunistic eaters and will prey on insects, smaller birds, and lizards. And it is not unheard of for this bird to plunder the nests of other smaller birds and steal eggs and nestlings.

In fact, toucans prefer animal food for feeding their chicks, which is thought to provide a crucial addition of protein to their diet.

The toucan’s large bill with its serrated edges is a valuable feeding tool for peeling fruit, reaching fruit on branches that are too small, and foraging deep into other birds’ nesting cavities.

But interestingly enough, it is their role as fruit eaters that plays an extremely important ecological role in seed dispersal as they pass the seeds they eat through their digestive system, replanting fruiting trees.

Breeding Behavior

toucan in the amazon rainforest

Although toucans live in groups, it is believed that during the breeding season and while raising their young, these birds are monogamous.

Typically breeding occurs during the Spring when part of the courtship ritual involves throwing fruit at one another.

Female toucans lay between one to five eggs in their nest in a tree cavity, usually excavated by other animals. Both male and female toucans incubate the eggs for 15 to 18 days, after which the chicks hatch.

Completely bald without any downy feathers, the chicks depend entirely on their parents for survival. After three weeks, their eyes open, and their feathers come in. They will remain in the nest for six to eight weeks, growing and developing the large bill for which they are known.

What Sounds Does a Toucan Make?

toucan habits

Toucans are well renowned for their racket and range of clattering sounds and vocalizations. 

Typically, this species of bird makes barking, grunting, snoring, and growling sounds that are often compared to a frog croaking, while the Mountain species makes a braying sound similar to that of a donkey. 

Generally, females have higher voices than males, with many of the species using their bill to make clattering and tapping sounds in addition to their vocalizations. These loud vocal calls are to communicate with the rest of the flock, alert them to danger, and, more importantly, scare off enemies.

Toucans’ Adaptations

Researchers have discovered that the toucan’s bill is not only used as a food tool but also as a highly efficient way to maintain its internal temperature. This means the bird can regulate the flow of its blood to its bill, distributing heat away from its body and cooling itself down.

Toucans also have an interesting way of sleeping. The three rear vertebrae are fused and attached to the bird’s spine by a ball and socket joint, which enables the toucan to snap its tail forward until it touches its head, turning them into what looks like a ball of feathers.


Toucan’s can live up to 20 years under expert care.

Toucans Family Life

amazon rainforest toucan

Toucans are awake from sunrise to sunset and sleep during the night. And it is for this reason, they are known as diurnal birds.

During the daytime, they can be found hopping around the forest canopy, foraging for food, where their bold colors act as camouflage against the backdrop of the greens and vibrant colors of the rainforest.

In fact, toucans tend to hop more than they fly and feed either in small flocks or individually. And while their enormous bills may intimidate other birds, it is not sturdy enough to defend the toucan against predators such as boas, jaguars, eagles, and hawks that lurk in the rainforests.

And when not out foraging for food, toucans can be found socializing in groups or in old woodpecker hollows or abandoned tree holes where five to six adults may even nest at a time.

What Strategies Do Toucans Use to Stay Alive in the Rainforest?

Due to the size of its bill, a toucan can easily reach fruit on branches that are too small to carry its weight. This essentially means the bird does not have to forage on the ground, making it a not-so-easy prey for predators.

And as mentioned previously, the vibrant colors of the toucan enable it to seamlessly blend into its surroundings, acting as camouflage for the bird.

Additionally, its sharp claws make it easy for this stout and hardy bird to climb trees and forage for food while using its long tail to balance while perched on a branch.

Toucans Population and Conservation

toucan colors

The total population of toucans in the wild is unknown, but it is believed their numbers exceed 10,000 mature birds.

Currently, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICUN) Red List, three species of toucan are listed as endangered, while the Yellow-throated and Keel-billed toucan, Saffron toucanet (Pteroglossus bailloni), Grey-breasted and Plated-billed mountain toucans are listed as near threatened.

This is due to habitat loss, hunting, and trapping for the pet trade. The remainder of the species is listed as of least concern as they occupy such an extensive range. Sadly, however, overall numbers for these iconic birds are in decline.


The loss of native habitat is these birds’ first and foremost threat. Deforestation activities in the rainforests to make way for farmlands, infrastructure, and roads have resulted in these birds being driven to secondary forests in search of food.

But it is not only deforestation figures that’s to blame, as toucans are still hunted in parts of Central America and the Amazon region, where hunters mimic the toucan calls to draw the bird close. Once captured, the bird either ends up in the exotic pet trade or as a stuffed trophy.

Currently, several conservation efforts are underway to protect this bird’s natural habitat, with some organizations, such as the non-profit Toucan Rescue Ranch in Costa Rica, focusing on the care, rehabilitation, and study of Costa Rican toucans.

Are Toucans Endangered?

what does a toucan look like

Yes, although several species of toucans are listed as the least concern, their population is dwindling.

In fact, as mentioned previously, three species of toucan are currently classified as endangered, which means they are at an elevated risk of extinction. While an additional five species of this bird are listed as near threatened.

Ways to Help Toucans

Despite these birds being endemic to the rainforests of Southern Mexico, Central America, and South America, there are ways to help toucans.

Adopting and sponsoring a toucan at a wildlife rehabilitation center of your choice is a great way to give these birds that have been taken into their care a chance to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

Help raise funds for organizations protecting the toucan’s natural habitat, building shelters for them, or involved in anti-logging and deforestation projects in the bird’s natural habitat.

Avoid buying products made from rainforest material and help raise awareness and funds for conserving the South American rainforests.

Relationship with Humans

colorful tucan

Due to their almost comical appearance and brightly colored bills, many toucans are amongst some of the most popular and well-known birds worldwide. Locally in their natural habitats, these birds were kept as pets and hunted for food, and their bills and plumage were used for decorative purposes.

In the Western world, the toucan image has been used for advertising beer and cereals and is even a mascot of a political party in Brazil. But the bird’s popularity doesn’t end there, for it has appeared in numerous films, TV shows, and even popular video games.

Are Toucans Illegal to Own?

In 13 countries and US states, toucans are illegal to own as there are concerns about the exotic pet trade and the fact that these birds can carry foreign pathogens. In fact, their sale is strictly prohibited, and possessing these animals, even for breeding purposes, is illegal.

In other places, however, you can keep this species of bird as long as you have the necessary permits. These laws have been put in place to protect the species and help protect the wildlife native to the area.


Which Country Has the Most Toucans?

Brazil, followed by Peru and Ecuador, is home to most toucans.

Which Toucan Species are the Most Endangered?

According to the ICUN red list, the Yellow-browed toucanet in Peru, where Coca growers have taken over its habitat, and the Ariel toucan and Eastern red-necked araçari, due to deforestation activities in the Amazon basin, are classified as endangered.

What Is the Biggest Toucan in the World?

The Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) measures up to 24 inches in length and weighs up to 1.9 pounds.

What Are the Enemies of a Toucan?

Natural enemies include predators such as forest owls, eagles, hawks, jaguars, margays, and boas.

Which Environment Is Best Suitable for Toucans To Live In?

The tree cavities and canopies of tropical rainforests where the toucan’s bright colors blend in well.


Despite being touted as excellent pets for their playful and affectionate ways, a toucan is still a wild animal that belongs in its natural habitat.

It’s not only the price of these birds that starts at $10,000 but also the upkeep and care, for toucans require not only money but time. Buying one is a long-term commitment as they can live for up to 20 years and be time-consuming and expensive.

As pets, toucans are very difficult and require a diet of fresh and exotic fruit. However, it has been reported that you can keep captive toucans on an insect diet only. But cheap fruit simply won’t cut it, and a toucan requires a specialized bird veterinarian and specialized care. 

Please think long and hard and do your research before taking on the responsibility of adopting a toucan as a pet!

Sue owns three rescues: Sherman, an Olde English Bulldogge cross Boerboel, Maddison, an Africanis, and Boris, an American Staffordshire Terrier. Having owned horses, dogs, cats, and even an African grey parrot over the years, Sue is a passionate advocate for animal rights and welfare, having experienced firsthand the trauma some of her rescues had been exposed to. As a freelance journalist and content writer for over 20 years, her goal has been to craft informative articles on responsible pet ownership and care, both in print and online. When not behind her computer, Sue can be found taking long walks on the beach with her dogs or hanging out in the garden with them.

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