The toucan family Ramphastidae contains 40 different species, including the araçaris and toucanets. The most well-known toucan is undoubtedly the Toco toucan, famed for its colossal bright orange bill. Toucans are tropical birds that dwell in the forests and mountains regions of Central and South America, but here we’re going to answer; what do toucans eat?
Toucans, toucanets and araçaris are omnivorous. While fruits make up the staple of their diet, they also depend on insects for dietary protein and are opportunistic predators, eating lizards, small birds and eggs. Like many other tropical birds, toucans play a crucial role in the tropical ecosystem by dispersing the seeds of fruit trees.
While toucans are cute and funny, they are not harmless and have a reputation for raiding other birds’ nests and eating their eggs and nestlings. They also eat lizards, frogs and other small invertebrates.
Read on to learn more about the diet and feeding habits of this quirky and emblematic bird!
A Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco) perched on a branch tossing food into it's mouth,
Toucans are technically omnivores, as they eat both meat, in the form of arthropods and invertebrates, and fruit. However, fruit makes up the vast majority of their diet.
For example, the Toco toucan feeds mainly on figs, oranges, guavas, peppers and a range of other less common tropical fruits. One study of the White-Throated toucan found 87% fruits in the stomach, the remainder mostly arthropods.
In terms of insects and invertebrates, toucans eat termites, spiders, caterpillars, pupae and larvae. Most toucans are also predatory towards other small birds. The Toco toucan eats the eggs and nestlings of blackbirds, doves and flycatchers, as well as other toucans. There have been observations of toucans eating lizards and frogs too.
Toucanets and araçaris are also omnivores and eat fruits, invertebrates and other birds and their eggs. However, the Emerald toucanet consumes more berries than most other toucans.
Emerald toucanets consume more berries than most other toucans
Toucans eat primarily fruits, though small amounts of vegetable matter have also been found in the stomachs of some toucanets. Figs, oranges, guavas and peppers are amongst their favourite foods, but as many as 113 species of plants were found in the Emerald toucanet’s diet!
The fruits of Cecropia trees and palm species such as Oenocarpus bacaba are particularly important to some toucans. Toucans play a key role in dispersing the seeds of fruit trees. They don’t generally eat seeds as they’re generally unable to digest them, but they still drop the seeds while feeding.
Toucans are flexible in terms of fruit and plant consumption and will eat whatever is available seasonally.
A Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii) eating a Guava
Spiders, ants, termites, moths, caterpillars and larvae of various kinds have all been found in toucans’ diets.
All birds from the toucan family eat some insects and invertebrates. When breeding, toucans up their consumption of protein-rich insects, which they also feed to their chicks.
Toucans pick fruits from trees using their long bills. Some toucans, like the Toco, grip the food with their beak and toss it towards the back of their throat.
It’s tempting to assume that the toucans’ large bills evolved for picking fruit from trees, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Darwin thought that the toucan’s large bill evolved for sexual selection and competition, but researchers now know that the toucan’s large bill acts as a heatsink, enabling them to cool down in hot weather.
Nevertheless, the bill is a valuable tool for foraging from the rainforest and toucans are often seen dangling from branches and taking advantage of their extended reach. So it’s likely that their large bills evolved for more than one reason.
A Keen-billed Toucan eating food
Toucans forage with their mate or in small flocks of up to 10 or 20 birds. Foraging usually takes place in the upper and middle tree canopies high above the ground - most toucans rarely visit the forest floor.
Instead, they pluck food from trees with their bills and hunt insects and animals opportunistically from branches and leaves.
Foraging is usually a social activity. However, some species of toucans, like the Grey-breasted mountain toucan, even forage along with other birds (though this is unusual behaviour for toucans).
Little is known about how often wild toucans feed. However, captive toucans need regular meals and are usually fed between two and six times a day.
This is because toucans have small or unusable crops, which means they can’t store excess food like other birds. As a result, they need regular, small meals given throughout the day. Many people underestimate how intensive a toucan’s diet is, leading to illness and malnutrition amongst pet toucans.
A Green aracari eating fruit in the forest
Toucans consume a huge variety of fruits and plants - over 100 species have been found in the stomach contents of some toucans!
Insects, invertebrates and small animals (primarily frogs and lizards) make up the remainder of their diet. The rainforest provides a tremendous range of food, and toucans are quite adaptable, so they take what is available seasonally.
In some regions, toucans’ rainforest habitats are being depleted by deforestation. Like so many other tropical birds, they rely on the rich and diverse rainforest ecosystem to survive and thrive. This is partly why the numbers of wild toucans are dropping rapidly.
A Toco Toucan eating Guava in the rainforest
Toucans are opportunistic predators that hunt small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and birds.
Plate-billed toucans have been rarely observed eating caecilians, which is a type of amphibious worm. Toco toucans regularly eat blackbird, dove and flycatcher eggs and nestlings.
Toucans can be aggressive and vicious - the Toco toucans have been observed attacking and killing blackbirds, tanagers, flycatchers, doves, parrots and hummingbirds.
Plate-billed toucan feeding on fruit
Toucans feed throughout the day. There is no evidence of toucans feeding at night.
Baby toucans are fed with soft fruits, insects and arthropods.
In the breeding season, toucans increase their insect intake - insects are rich in the proteins that young birds need to grow. Both parents usually feed the chicks.
Toucans solely drink water. In the wild, toucans likely meet their water requirements by eating juicy fruits like guavas and citrus.
Pet and captive toucans require a diverse diet rich in fruits, as well as need low-iron pellet foods.
In terms of fruits, captive toucans should be fed bananas, guava, mango, apples, papaya, oranges, pear, figs and melons. Some toucans might appreciate mealworms or even live insects like crickets or larvae.
Overconsumption of iron causes hemochromatosis or iron storage disease, which is a common issue in pet toucans. It’s crucial to feed pet toucans with an iron-controlled diet.
Toco Toucan eating fruit
Toucans are omnivores, and they do eat the nestlings of other birds.
While toucans are mainly frugivorous fruit eaters, they can be aggressive towards other birds.
Toucans use their large bills to pry inside birds’ nests and eat blackbird, dove and flycatcher chicks. They also prey on each others’ nests - it’s not unusual for a toucan to eat the eggs and nestlings of another toucan.
Toco toucans are omnivores that eat various fruits, insects, invertebrates and small animals such as frogs, lizards and birds. Toco toucans are often observed raiding the nests’ of other toucans, blackbirds, doves and flycatchers. They are one of the more aggressive species of toucans.
Toucans are opportunistic predators and do hunt other birds, including parrots. Toucans have been observed killing medium-sized birds with their bills but cannot eat them with their large bills.
Toucans aren’t particularly fond of bananas in the wild, but they will eat them in captivity.
Toucans do eat mangos. Mangos are an excellent food to feed captive and pet toucans. Mangos are usually a little large for toucans to eat in the wild.
Pineapples are tricky to eat in the wild due to their size and rough skin. However, pineapples can be fed to pet and captive toucans.
Toco Toucan eating bananas from a tree in Brazil
Some captive toucans might appreciate cucumber, but it isn’t a food they would eat naturally in the wild. Cucumber is still nutritious for birds and is a good source of water.
Toucans don’t eat sloths. They are opportunistic predators but they only target birds, lizards and the occasional frog that wanders into the tree canopy.
Captive or pet toucans can eat strawberries, though this isn’t a food that they’ll often encounter in the wild.
Toucans don’t need coffee plants and shouldn’t be fed coffee beans either.
Toucans have been observed eating hummingbirds. For the most part, hummingbirds are too small and agile for toucans, and their nests are generally too close to the forest floor; toucans rarely roam outside of the upper and middle tree canopies so don’t often come across hummingbirds.
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