Toucans aren’t just birds that many of us associate with sugary cereal. Despite their cartoon-like appearance, most birders who have visited tropical evergreen forests from southern Mexico to northern Argentina can assure you that toucans do indeed exist! Many species of toucans occur and they look even more unreal in life.
A Yellow-throated Toucan from Costa Rica.
Bold, bright colors and over-sized beaks, these birds are nothing short of incredible. Given their appearance and association with tropical locales, toucans are also frequently associated with another type of exotic bird, parrots.
Various parrot species and toucans do use some of the same habitats and places (and can also fight over nest cavities), but they aren’t related at all. Whereas parrots are actually distantly related to falcons (yes, incredibly!), toucan species are in the Piciformes, the avian order that also includes barbets and woodpeckers.
Like woodpeckers, toucans, aracaris, and toucanets nest in cavities (holes in trees). However, in terms of behavior, they are actually more similar to crows and jays. Yes, oddly enough, toucans are a bit like Neotropical Corvids with massive bills. There are reasons for this convergence in behaviors and it comes down to the same thing that drives us and so many other forms of life; food.
Intelligent: Although certain crows and ravens are up there at the peak of avian intelligence, it would be interesting to give an IQ test to some of the toucans. Like crows, these omnivores also frequently need to figure out how to find and catch food. To survive, they have to be curious so they can see which fruits are edible, where small lizards and other animals are hiding. Watch them and you can actually see toucans size up situations and check you out.
Checking thing out…
Social: Like Corvids, toucans are also very social birds, especially the small aracaris. When these small toucans troop through the forest, it can be very reminiscent of groups of jays or crows that seem to be bent on looking for trouble. Larger species like the Keel-billed Toucan are likewise always on the lookout for trouble and can also flock together but are more often seen in pairs.
Collared Aracaris on the prowl in Costa Rica.
Noisy: Overall, Corvids are probably noisier than toucans but not by much. Pairs or groups of the large toucans often perch in the upper branches of a massive, emergent rainforest tree where they then proceed to duet and give their loud calls over and over. As they call (some species make a yelping noise, others sound like croaking frogs), they also flip their bills up perhaps to help “throw” the sound of the call while also showing off their bill. Smaller toucans are also frequently vocal, often in social situations. Members of this family are quick to give the alarm and do mob predators on occasion.
Voracious: As with jays, crows, and ravens, toucans are likewise absolutely voracious. No matter which species or how big or small, they are some of the top nest predators in the forest. Their large, sharp-edged bills are perfect for probing cavities, nooks, and crannies where bird nests might be found and they don’t hesitate to eat any egg or nestling that they find. At the same time, they won’t turn down other prey items either including lizards, large bugs, fruit, and even small snakes and bats!
As with species of jays and other birds, different types of toucans also live in different habitats and regions. Although they require tropical forests, thankfully, most of the 33 species of Ramphastidae are still fairly common and easy to see. Several of these fancy, exciting birds occur in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama, use our birding field guide apps for these countries to learn about the toucans that live there, listen to their vocalizations, and mark them as target species for your birding trip.