The toco toucan, the largest and best-known toucan species, is at home in South America's tropical forests. Its oversized, colorful bill has made it one of the world's most popular birds: They're familiar commercial mascots, known for hawking stout, cereal, and other products. They can weigh nearly two pounds and grow to 25 inches long, with their bill accounting for nearly half of their length.
Indigenous peoples regard the bird with a sacred eye; they are traditionally seen as conduits between the worlds of the living and the spirits.
Toucan bill and diet
Both male and female toucans possess large, colorful bills. Their exact purpose isn't clear, though they're believed to play a role in the courthship ritual and in self-defense. As a weapon, however, the bill is more show than substance. It's a lightweight honeycomb of keratin—the same protein that makes up fingernails and horn—supported by thin rods of bone. While its size may deter predators, it is of little use in fighting them. The toco toucan can also regulate the flow of blood to its bill, allowing the bird to use it as a way to distribute heat away from its body.
The bill is useful as a feeding tool. The birds use them to reach fruit on branches that are too small to support their weight. And the bill's serrated edges are useful for peeling fruit. In addition to fruit such as figs, oranges, and guavas, toco toucans eat insects and eggs and nestlings of young birds.
Toco toucans feed either individually or in small flocks in the canopy. They tend to hop more than they fly. Their bright colors provide good camouflage in the dappled light of the rainforest canopy. The birds keep up a racket of vocalizations—mainly grunting and snoring sounds—that are often compared to the croaking of frogs.
These toucans nest in tree cavities and usually lay two to four eggs, which both parents take turns incubating. Young toucans do not have a large bill at birth—it grows as they develop and does not become full size for several months.
These iconic birds are listed as "least concern" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature because they occupy such a large range. The species' overall numbers, however, are declining. They are hunted for food and for the pet trade, where their bright colors and intelligence make them popular.