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Toucans of the Tropical Rainforest

Updated on May 29, 2012
Pale-mandibled Araari (Pteroglossus erythropygius)
Pale-mandibled Araari (Pteroglossus erythropygius) | Source

Toucans are an interesting bird with an odd appearance that has made them the topic of many cartoons and advertising illustrations. Hawking everything from breakfast cereal to underwear, this strange creature has gained the attention of the world and has become the essence of the tropical rainforest. When a toucan is mentioned or seen the observer immediately thinks of the neotropics. 

Birds of the Tropical Rainforest

Within the Ramphastidae are the Toucans, Toucanets and the Araçaris. They are endemic to the neotropics ranging from Southern Mexico down through South America. Although most inhabit the lower altitudes of the Andean slopes and the Amazon Basin, there are some that reside as high as 3,300 m (11,000 ft). Included in the family are five Genera and forty species. All Toucans exhibit an oversized and colorful bill, which adds to their curious appearance and nature.

General Appearance

Toucans can vary widely in size, from the diminutive Golden-collared Toucanet at 30.5 – 32 cm (12 – 12 ½ in) to the imposing figure of the Toco Toucan at 63 cm (29 in). Bill length varies accordingly, from a petite 6 – 6.5 cm (2 ¼ - 2 ½ in) of the Toucanets to the impressive proboscis of the larger birds extending over 20 cm (8 in).

The bodies of Toucans are short and stocky, similar to a crow. They have very little neck adding to the appearance that the bill is heavy and unwieldy. The beak is, in fact, very lightweight. The outer mandibles are tough whereas the internal structure is hollow and filled with bone struts and a porous keratin material. The legs of this impressive creature are short but powerful. Their toes are organized in pairs, two facing forward and the others in reverse.

In spite of their size, their wings are rather short. Since they inhabit the canopy of the tropical rainforest they are not required to fly great distances in search of food. The tail is quite rounded and can vary in length depending on species.

The most unusual feature of the Toucan, however, is not its bill but its tail. This atypical creature has a ball and socket mechanism that allows it to snap its hindquarter plumage forward until it touches its head. This permits the bird to sleep within the confines of its arboreal nest comfortably. When seen in this state it resembles a simple cluster of feathers.

Choc Toucan (Ramphastos brevis)
Choc Toucan (Ramphastos brevis) | Source

Habits and Habitats

Toucans inhabit the canopy of the tropical rainforest and are not prone to migration. They will nest in tree holes that have been excavated by other birds such as woodpeckers. Feeding mostly on fruit, they are opportunistic when confronted with vertebrate and invertebrate prey. They have also been known to raid the nest of other species for eggs and young thus adding this additional protein to their diets. Due to their fondness for fruit, they are one of the primary purveyors of seed for the propagation of seedlings throughout their territory.

Toucans of Ecuador

There are nineteen species of Toucans in five genera residing in Ecuador. Of these, the Pale-mandibled Araçari is endemic, ranging from the Esmeraldas and Pichincha provinces south to Loja. The individual species inhabit either the eastern or western slopes of the Andes, none of them crossing the inter-Andean valley. The Yellow-eared Toucanet is probably the least common of all species in Ecuador residing mainly in the Rio Canande Reserve area.


With their outstanding looks and comical personalities, Toucans have won the hearts of the world. Representing the mystery and wonder of the tropical rainforest, these colorful birds are a sight to cherish. The ardent naturalist seeks them with vigor and are seldom disappointed.


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    • profile image

      Claudia Julietta P 5 years ago

      What a beautiful summary they put in there.

    • ColibriPhoto profile image

      ColibriPhoto 6 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thanks Pamela. You are welcome to use the photo as a guide for your painting. Good luck on the PS Essentials. It can be daunting at first.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 6 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Another terrific article, ColibriPhoto. I really like the top photo, too. I was working on a chalk pastel painting of two toucans, but put it away. They are dark-blue billed. This one in your top photo is very pretty and needs a place in my painting. By the way, so far I've put away Photoshop Essentials -- that we spoke of. I gave up, but a friend said she'll show me the ropes soon.

    • ColibriPhoto profile image

      ColibriPhoto 7 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

      Thanks CountryCityWoman, they are beautiful and fascinating to watch.

    • CountryCityWoman profile image

      CountryCityWoman 7 years ago from From New York City to North Carolina

      They are just so beautiful. Wow! Thanks for the information and the lovely photos - 19 species, I had no idea. Rated up. Lovely!