Central America and South America


Rain forest canopy

Cereal, anyone?

Show any child a photo of a bird with an extraordinarily large beak, and they will tell you that it's a toucan! Perhaps the most well known tropical bird, the toucan is a symbol of playfulness and intelligence that has been used quite successfully by advertisers and business owners. There are several species of birds in the toucan family, some with names like aracari or toucanet, but they all sport that large, comical bill.

Are you SURE we’re related?

Although toucans and woodpeckers may not look like they have much in common, they are in the same taxonomic order (Piciformes) and have a lot in common. Like woodpeckers—and the parrots and macaws they share the forest with—toucans are zygodactylous, meaning they have two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward. This foot design provides strength and stability when moving through dense branches, up and down tree trunks, or in and out of tree cavities.

Both toucans and woodpeckers have a tongue that is long, narrow, and feather-like. Bristles along each side of the tongue help the birds catch and taste food before moving it down the throat. In addition, toucans and woodpeckers have short, stiff tail feathers, called rectrices, and nest in tree cavities. Both toucans and woodpeckers tend to be mostly shiny black, but they are decorated with bright whites, yellows, oranges, reds, and greens, depending on the species.

The rainbow-billed or keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize.
While often compared to hornbills, toucans are close relatives of the woodpecker.
The name toucan comes from tucana, a word from the Tupi people of Brazil that refers to the toucan. A constellation located just over the South Pole is called Tucana.
Toucans are important for rain forest health and diversity. These birds pass seeds from the fruit they eat through their digestive systems, which helps replant the plants.
The toucanet and aracari are smaller birds in the toucan family.
The curl-crested aracari is unique among toucans for the curly feathers on its head.
Mountain toucans live at much higher elevations than other toucan species, up to 11,900 feet (3,600 meters) in the Andes Mountains.

The San Diego Zoo’s first toucan was a keel-billed toucan obtained in the early 1920s; in 1931, we received Ariel toucans and several toucanets. To keep them warm in the winter months, these birds were moved inside the Zoo’s reptile house.

The following story about our early toucans appeared in our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, in 1937:

“In the parrot cage group we have a trio of toucans which have lived out of doors now for four winters and hold their own in a cage of seven fine eclectus parrots…. Sitting near the cage on a park bench you will undoubtedly hear the croaking of a small tree frog. We often hear visitors speak of it, but do not be fooled. That is no frog but the three toucans conversing in the tongue of their native land.”

Today, the Zoo is home to plate-billed mountain toucans and green aracaris, living near our hummingbird aviary, and crimson-rumped toucanets, curl-crested aracaris, and ivory-billed aracaris, all living in our Parker Aviary.

The Zoo also has a toucan ambassador. Rico is a toco toucan trained to meet with guests up close during shows on the Zoo’s front plaza and at other animal-presentation areas. With his jet-black body and brilliant orange bill, Rico always attracts a crowd of admirers. Hand-raised, his trainers describe Rico as quite a character who is very comfortable around people, curious about whatever is going on around him, and eager to check out any new object. He is trained to fly across a stage and land on a guest’s outstretched arm. Perhaps on your next visit to the Zoo, you can meet this handsome toucan up close!

The biggest threat to toucans right now is habitat loss: as the rain forests are being cut down to make way for roads, farms, and buildings, all of the animals that live there are losing their homes. The yellow-browed toucanet has a very small range in Peru. Coca growers have taken over its forest home, making this toucan species the only one to be listed as endangered, but many others are becoming threatened.

Toucans are still hunted in parts of Central America and the Amazon region. Hunters often mimic toucan calls to draw the birds close. Many toucans are captured for the pet trade or for use as stuffed trophies to hang on a wall.