Ramphastos sulfuratuskeel-billed toucan

Geographic Range

Ramphastos sulfuratus occurs from South Mexico to North Colombia and Northeast Venezuela (Kricher 1989).


Ramphastos sulfuratus lives in lowland forests and on forest borders (Kricher, 1989; Belize, 2000).

Physical Description

Ramphastos sulfuratus is a large (about 20 inches or 52 cm long) colorful bird, and has a bill that can grow to be up to one third the size of its body (Enchantedlearning, 1999). The large banana-shaped bill is the most distinguishing feature of R. sulferatus, and is surprisingly lightweight for its size (Kricher, 1989). The light weight of the keratin-composed bill is due to its hollow, bone-reinforced construction (Kricher, 1989; Enchantedlearning, 1999; Thurman, 1999). The bill is edged with tooth-like ridges. Housed within the bill is a long, narrow, feather-like tongue. The body of R. sulfuratus is black, and it has a bright yellow bib and cheeks. Its rump is white, and the undertail coverts are a brilliant red. The area directly around the eyes is bare, showing the pale blue skin underneath. Its bill, which takes up the entire front of its head, is green, with a bright orange blaze on the side, red on the tip of the upper mandible, and blue on the tip of the lower mandible. Males and females share the same coloration and large bill, the only difference being that the male is slightly larger than the female. Ramphastos sulfuratus has blue legs and its toes are arranged in the zygodactyl pattern (with two toes forward and two toes back)(Kricher, 1989; Greer, 1993; Beletsky, 1998). Its tail is long and square-shaped, and its wings are wide and short to enable flight through trees (Beletsky, 1998).

Ramphastos sulfuratus is one of the larger species of toucans, weighing about 400 grams. There are several species of toucan, distinguished mainly by beak size, body size and body coloring. The behavioral characteristics of all toucan species are largely similar (Emerald Forest).

  • Average mass
    400 g
    14.10 oz


Ramphastos sulfuratus nests in natural or wood-pecker made tree cavities and lays clutches of 2 to 4 white glossy eggs. They can have up to 2 or 3 broods in a year. Both parents share the responsibility of incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks once they hatch. The altricial chicks hatch after 16 to 20 days of incubation. They remain in the nest for 8 to 9 weeks so that their beaks may fully form (Kricher, 1989; Enchantedlearning, 1999).

Ramphastos sulfuratus is apparently monogamous. Sometimes a mated pair will defend a fruit tree from other toucans and other frugivorous birds. They defend the tree by threat displays and sometimes, if the other bird is also a toucan, by bill clashes (Beletsky, 1998).

The brightly colored bill of R. sulfuratus probably does not have a great deal to do with mate selection, as both male and females share the same large beak and the same bright coloration. The coloration is probably more of a camouflage in the brightly colored tropical regions where R. sulfuratus resides (Kricher, 1989; Beletsky, 1998).

  • Breeding interval
    They can have up to 2 or 3 broods in a year.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 4
  • Range time to hatching
    16 to 20 days
  • Range fledging age
    8 to 9 weeks


Ramphastos sulfuratus travels in flocks of 6 to 12 adults. The flocks roost in holes of tree trunks, sometimes with several birds crowding into one hole. Since the tree cavities aren't always very roomy, the species must conserve space. It does so by folding its tail up over its back and tucking its beak beneath its wing when it roosts. Ramphastos sulfuratus is a social feeder as well. The flocks travel together from tree to tree in loose strings of birds (Kricher, 1989; Beletsky, 1998; Belize, 2000; Greer, 1993).

In flight, the Keel-billed Toucan displays a period of rapid flapping and then a glide. It cannot travel long distances, and it is much more agile when hopping around from branch to branch in the trees. Its call is a "creek, creek", which sounds similar to the croak of a treefrog (Kricher, 1989; Beletsky, 1998; Belize, 2000).

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

The diet of R. sulfuratus consists primarily of fruit, but it will also consume the eggs or fledglings of other birds, insects, small lizards and tree frogs. By eating these non-fruit items, R. sulfuratus increases its protein intake. This toucan travels in flocks of 6 to 12, eating fruit as it goes. Eating the fruit whole by snapping its head back and gulping down, R. sulfuratus can regurgitate large seeds unharmed. Small seeds are passed through the bird's digestive tract, also unharmed. In this way, the seeds are dispersed far from the parent plant. Although the function of the bill of R. sulfuratus is not fully understood, it does make a very good tool for plucking fruit off branches that are too small to bear the weight of the bird (Kricher, 1987; Remsen, 1993; Beletsky, 1998; Enchantedlearning, 1999).

Ramphastos sulfuratus is spotted feeding mainly in high canopy, and will only fly down occasionally to feed on shrubs or to snatch a reptilian food item from the forest floor (Beletsky, 1998).

The Chestnut-mandibled Toucan may sometimes 'parasitize' R. sulfuratus by following R. sulfuratus to a fruit-filled tree, and then chasing the smaller bird (R. sulfuratus) away (Beletsky, 1998).

  • Animal Foods
  • reptiles
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The Keel-billed Toucan is the national bird of Belize. It is responsible for bringing in much of the tourism there (Belize, 2000; Greer, 1993).

Humans have, as mentioned above, hunted R. sulfuratus for meat, and sport (keeping the feathers as ornamentation). They have also captured this species for the pet market (Beletsky, 1998).

Also, 'Toucan Sam', the cartoon used to advertise Fruit Loops cereal is sometimes identified (incorrectly) as a Keel-billed (Emerald Forest).

Conservation Status

Ramphastos sulfuratus is not immediately threatened, but it is CITES listed, because it is considered to be a look-alike of threatened species, and therefore needs to be monitored. The species is a common resident in areas where it occurs (its range), except where there is heavy deforestation. There are some areas where R. sulfuratus is locally scarce due to hunting (to eat or/and for ornaments). Toucan feathers have been used as ornaments for a long time (Beletsky, 1998).

Ramphastos sulfuratus, like many other species of toucan, is a popular pet, due to its brightly colored bill and its intelligence. At one time, animals were taken from the wild and kept as pets. Now, there are organizations, which specialize in hand-rearing R. sulfuratus for the pet market (or parent-rearing for use in other breeding programs), so this factor does not have as great effect on the conservation status as in the past (Beletsky, 1998; Emerald Forest).

In some areas of Belize, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, R. sulfuratus is allowed to fly loose around people's homes, free to come and go as it pleases (Emerald Forest).


Megan Carney (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Terry Root (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


Beletsky, L. 1998. Costa Rica: The Ecotraveller's Wildlife Guide. San Diego: Academic Press.

Belize Zoo, T. 2000. "Keel-billed Toucan" (On-line). Accessed October 8, 2000 at http://www.belizezoo.org/zoo/zoo/birds/tou/tou1.html.

Emerald Forest Birds, "Keel-billed Toucan" (On-line). Accessed September 30, 2004 at http://www.emeraldforestbirds.com/keelbill2.htm.

Enchantedlearning.com, 1999. "Keel-billed Toucan" (On-line). Accessed October 8, 2000 at http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/birds/printouts/Toucancoloring.shtml.

Greer, E. 1993. "Keel-billed Toucan" (On-line). Accessed October 8, 2000 at http://www.ambergriscaye.com/birds/toucan.html.

Kricher, J. 1989. A Neotropical Companion: An Introduction to the Animals, Plants and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics.

Remsen, J., M. Hyde, A. Chapman. 1993. The diets of neotropical trogons, motmots, barbets, and toucans. The Condor, 95: 178-182.

Thurman, J. 1999. "Keel-billed Toucan" (On-line). Accessed October 8, 2000 at http://whozoo.org/students/jenthu/toucan.html.