The Keel-Billed Toucan
Ramphastos sulfuratus


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Piciformes
Family: Ramphastidae
Genus: Ramphastos
Species: sulfuratos

Range and Abundance:

  • Range: Southern Mexico to northern Columbia and extreme northwestern Venezuela
    • In Central America it is mainly found on the Caribbean side, while in northern Costa Rica it is in the forests of the Pacific side.
  • Altitude: range is from sea level to 4,000 feet in Costa Rica, and to 5,000 feet in the Santa Marta region of Columbia

Coloration and Morphology (Dimorphic, Juveniles, etc):
· Black plumage and a very large, brightly colored bill
· Bill colors: orange, yellow, red ,green, black

Fun fact: The bill, though it looks heavy, is actually very light. It is made of keratin and thin rods of bone that support it

· Red and white coverts above and below its tail region
· Green skin around eyes and between its eyes and bill
· Yellow face and throat
· Blue legs
· 50 cm (20 in.) long, while its beak is 20 cm in length (8 in.)
· Weight: up to 400 g, or 14 oz.

These birds reside most often in tropical and subtropical rainforests, lowland forests, and forest borders. Many times toucans will make their homes in plantations, such as those of cacao or banana. The toucan is known to take advantage of tree cavities, and prefers these sites to make their home because of the extra protection provided, versus an open nest in the forest. Additionally, most of the work has already been done by other birds such as woodpeckers, etc. The toucan must only make the tree its own by filling it with leaves, branches, etc. to prepare for a birth, for example.

Predators of the toucan include humans, weasels, other large birds. Keel-billed toucans are known to prey on lizards, insects, and other small reptiles, but again this is only done when fruit is not available.

Behavior (Assemblages, Sex, Hierarchy, Social structure):

· Toucans are known to be poor flyers.
· Toucans move from tree to tree by hopping most often.
· Social: They are often found in groups of 5 or 6, and like to travel in small parties of up to one dozen individuals. They fly in a "follow the leader" fashion, but are quite clumsy when flying in general. Hence their resorting to hopping. Toucans are known to use their voices very commonly. They communicate with one another using this method, and assist other members of the group when rasing offspring.

· Sexual maturity: 3 or 4 years old [Maximum life span is usually 20 years old]

  • Before laying eggs, the toucan will take over a nesting area up to a month beforehand and prepare it. It cleans out rotten wood and debris, bringing in fresh green leaves, and again removing them when they wither.

· Clutch size: The keel-billed toucan lays from 2 to 4 eggs at a time, and they are usually laid in hollow trees

Parents take turns incubating the eggs. When born, nestlings have pink skin, their eyes are closed, and the lower mandible is actually a bit longer than the upper. Newborn toucans are fed by the parents via regurgitation of food. Feathers begin appearing around day 26 after birth. At around day 47, the toucan can fly.

· It is not known whether toucans keep the same mate throughout their lives

Fun fact: To make sure there is enough room for all to sleep, toucans curl up with their beaks and tails tucked underneath their body feathers.

  • Voice: It's call has been compared to the croak of a frog, and very guttural. When singing, they throw their heads up and down, and from side to side.

Diet (What, Where, When, How):
· What: Toucans are omnivorous. They eat mainly fruit (Cecropia included). However, in times of fruit scarcity, these birds may resort to preying on insects, reptiles, birds, and the eggs of various animals.

· Where: Keel-billed toucans reside in hollow trees most often. They can be found in tree cavities, openings in the tree that have either been excavated by other animals (mostly birds) or caused by environmental factors (weather related, etc.). In these microhabitats, the birds have enough room to lay their eggs, which is a major reason why decaying forest trees are important ecologically.

· When: These birds are known to be crepuscular, meaning they are active at both dawn and dusk. This means that they are looking for food at these times, as well as keeping their nests in order and sticking together as a general rule.

· How: The toucan's large bill allows it to feed on a wide variety of fruits. The bill is used to dissect the fruit, then a quick tossing back of its head allows it to throw the pieces of food up in the air, after which it is coordinated enough to catch it before it drops to the forest floor.

Relationships with other species:
The keel-billed toucan is affected by its parasitic relationship with the feather lice

Austrophilopterus cancellosus. Feather lice, as their name implies, feed on their host's blood and subsequently cause the host's feathers to fall out. This relationship has been investigated (Weckstein, 2003) so as to determine whether or not the two species evolved in a phylogenetically similar pattern in which the evolution of one affected the other. After phylogenies of the two species were examined, their relationship was interpreted not to be coevolutionary. Further studies have yet to be conducted on phylogenies of the different species of feather lice that are seen to affect toucans of a different species than Ramphastos.

Experience in Costa Rica:
We actually did not get to see the keel-billed toucan on our trip, despite its being listed in the species section of the OTS website. However, the Chestnut-mandibled toucan has similar characteristics and ecology. It is the largest toucan in Central America. Differences do include sexual dimorphism in sizes of males and females, and while it may appear similar to the keel-billed toucan in appearance, it actually is more successful than the keel-billed in competition for fruit trees. Also, the mating rituals for the chesnut-mandibled are more elaborate than the keel-billed.


Weckstein, J. D. (2005). Molecular phylogenetics of the ramphastos toucans: implications for the evolution of morphology, vocalizations, and coloration. The Auk, 122(4),

Skutch, A. F. Life history of the keel-billed toucan.. (1971). The Auk, 88(2).]]