9 Things You Didn't Know About Toucans

These noisy, colorful birds help keep rainforests alive.

Toucan
Toucans are among the world's noisiest birds. amsterdamned / Getty Images

Whether it’s pitching breakfast cereal or enthralling kids on a nature show, toucans are popular and unmistakable animals. These intelligent birds with oversize, colorful bills are found in the rainforests of Central and South America. 

Discover fascinating facts about toucans' distinctive bills, their conservation status, and what they do way up in the rainforest canopies.

1. Toucans Make Many Noises

The common name “toucan” comes from the sound the birds make, says the San Diego Zoo. Toucans are among the world’s noisiest birds. When they sing, they sound like frogs croaking. They also make tapping and clattering noises with their bills. Some toucan species also make barking, growling, and braying sounds.

Female toucans typically have higher voices than males. They use their calls to rally other birds to good foraging sites and to differentiate themselves from other groups of toucans.

2. They Come From a Big Family

Toucans are part of the family Ramphastidae, which includes about 40 species of toucans, as well as the smaller toucanets and aracaris. The one thing they all have in common is a bill that is disproportionately large compared to the rest of their bodies.

3. They Use Their Bills in Numerous Ways

Toco Toucan eating fruit
The toucan's large bill helps it reach for faraway fruit. Hal Beral / Getty Images

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why the toucan has such a massive bill. It may play a role in courtship, as the large, brightly colored bill might be alluring to potential mates. Its size also might be intimidating to predators or other birds that compete with the toucan for food. But in an actual fight, the unwieldy bill wouldn’t be of much use. It’s made of a honeycomb of keratin that isn’t very durable, heavy, or strong.

The bill comes in handy at dinnertime. Toucans use the large appendage to reach fruit that would otherwise be out of their grasp, then use the serrated edge of the bill with amazing dexterity to peel and eat the fruit.

Scientists have also found that the toucan’s bill plays a role in helping it cool off. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers said they discovered toucans can regulate blood flow to the bill, using it as a way to keep its body temperature under control.

4. They Aren’t Graceful in the Sky

Toucan, a tropical bird
Toucans spend more time hopping than flying. Enrique Ramos Lopez / Getty Images

Although their massive bills are useful, they don’t often make toucans look graceful — especially when flying. “In their slow, undulatory flight, toucans often look awkward or unbalanced, probably because the large bill seems to be pulling the large bird behind it,” writes Les Beletsky in “Birds of the World.”

5. They Live in the Rainforest Canopies

Toco Toucan perched in nesthole in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil
Toucans like to nest in natural tree cavities or those made by other birds. Image captured by Joanne Hedger / Getty Images

Maybe that’s why toucans spend more time hopping than flying. They spend most of their lives high in the rainforest canopies, nestled in the leaves. They nest in tree cavities that are naturally found in trees or that have been made by other birds — usually woodpeckers. When it’s time to rest, a toucan does a bit of a contortionist act, turning its head backwards, tucking its head under its wing, then flipping its tail straight over its head.

6. Their Size May Vary

Emerald Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus), San Gerardo de Dota, San Jose Province, Costa Rica, Central America
The emerald toucanet is one of the smaller members of the family. Matthew Williams-Ellis/robertharding / Getty Images

Toucan species can range quite a bit in length and weight, reports the San Diego Zoo. The largest is the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) at about 24 inches (61 centimeters) and up to 1.9 pounds (860 grams). The smallest is the tawny-tufted toucanet (Selenidera nattereri) at 12.5 inches (32 centimeters). The lightest is the lettered aracari (Pteroglossus inscriptus) at a mere 3.4 ounces (95 grams). 

7. Toucans Are Sociable

Wild Toucan Birds in Iguazu National Park in South America
Toucans often hang out in very large groups. Bkamprath / Getty Images

Friendly birds that like to hang out together, toucans are usually observed in flocks of three to 12. Sometimes 20 or more birds live in the same group. It’s believed that they are monogamous. The birds have been spotted tossing fruit to each other as part of a kind of courtship ritual.

8. They Face Threats in the Wild

Toucan, Ramphastos vitellinus
Toucans face threats from hunters who trap them to sell them as pets. leonikonst / Getty Images

Probably the best known and most recognizable of the toucans, the toco toucan is listed as “least concern” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List because the species has “such an extremely large range.” However, the overall population numbers are declining.

The main threats to the toco toucan and other toucan species are habitat loss and hunting. The rainforests are being taken down for farming, homes, and roads. For example, cocoa-growers took over the yellow-browed toucanet's range in Peru, leading this bird onto the endangered list. The ariel toucan and the Eastern red-necked aracari in Brazil are also endangered due to deforestation. Other species are vulnerable or near threatened.

Toucans also face threats from hunters who capture the bird to sell as pets, for food, or as trophies. When they take fruit from orchards, farmers sometimes hunt them as pests to keep them from stealing their crops.

9. They Help Rainforests

Toucans are vital to keeping rainforests alive. They eat an array of native fruits, passing the seeds through their droppings, which helps keep the plants growing and maintaining the forest’s diversity.