Overview

“Where I live”

The keel-billed toucan is a Central American bird that lives in tropical lowland forests and may also be seen in nearby woodlands and clearings.

The Maryland Zoo features a keel-billed toucan among its Animal Ambassadors, which are introduced to audiences in education programs on and off grounds.

“How I live there”

Keel-billed toucans are sociable, active, restless birds that are usually seen together high in the treetops in pairs or small groups. They feed, roost, play, and groom each other. Keel-billed toucans have been seen engaging in beak-to-beak wrestling matches where one bird tries to knock another off a branch first. Two or more birds may also play catch with pieces of fruit.

Keel-billed toucans spend most of their time hopping from branch to branch high in the trees, and will make short but awkward flights between trees. They eat mainly fruit, but also will consume tree frogs, small lizards, insects, and the eggs or fledglings of other bird species. They intimidate smaller birds with their size and their beaks, and thus have no trouble robbing nests. The toucans use their long beaks to pluck fruit or berries from thin twigs that would not bear their full weight. Pairs will offer each other food and engage in mutual preening.

Keel-billed toucans prefer to drink and bathe in pools of rainwater trapped in tree hollows rather than descend to ground level.

These birds are active during the day and roost at night in tree cavities, often with several birds occupying the same hole. Inside the cavity, the birds conserve space by folding their tails upwards along their backs and tucking their large beaks beneath their wings.

“Making my mark”

The keel-billed toucan is considered one of the larger toucan species. Its plumage is almost all black with a striking yellow throat bib. It can be identified as a toucan by its large and brightly colored bill, and as a keel-billed toucan for its unique bill coloration. The bill comprises about 1/3 of the bird’s total length, but is surprisingly light and maneuverable because of its honeycomb structure.

It is not fully understood why toucans have such large and brightly colored bills. They do not seem to play a large role in courtship, given that males and females are identical in all but size. It could be that the different bill color patterns help toucans of different species identify their own kind.

Raising Young

Keel-billed toucans nest in tree cavities. Females lay clutches of 1 to 4 eggs that hatch in 17 to 19 days. Both parents incubate the eggs and then care for the chicks, which remain in the nest for 8 to 9 weeks until their beaks have formed fully. At birth, chicks are naked, blind, and utterly helpless. Juveniles are black with green beaks, and develop their full coloration within a year.

“What eats me”

Large birds of prey and humans are known predators of adult keel-billed toucans. Many other animals, including snakes and weasels, might attempt to steal their eggs.

Conservation

Keel-billed toucans are listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN, the world’s leading conservation organization, because they are widespread throughout a broad range. However, their overall population appears to be in decline and they are disappearing form parts of their range that are heavily deforested.

Toucans can be found for purchase as pets, but anyone considering this should do research in advance. Toucans are admired for their distinctive looks and intelligence, but they are also active, noisy, and messy. They need a lot of space and have stringent dietary requirements. Be sure you know what you are getting into before making a commitment, because it is a commitment that should be made for the duration of your pet’s life!

Taxonomy

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Piciformes
  • Family: Ramphastidae
  • Genera: Ramphastos
  • Species: sulfuratus

What is an Animal Ambassador?

The Maryland Zoo refers to its special collection of education program animals as “Animal Ambassadors.” The Zoo currently cares for more than 60 Animal Ambassadors, representing more than 40 species, both native and exotic. These animals are managed separately from the rest of the Zoo’s collection and cannot be seen on exhibit at the Zoo. However, many can be seen up close and personal on a rotating basis at Creature Encounters, the Zoo’s outdoor education center; at camp and school programs at the Zoo; as featured participants in community-based Outreach programs; and at special events on and off Zoo grounds.

Animal Ambassadors spend countless hours working with their human handlers, developing bonds of trust and communication that will allow them to appear in front of audiences large and small. They are not show animals. They behave naturally, focusing audiences’ attention on their natural behaviors and adaptations and giving living, breathing meaning to concepts and topics that students may be studying.

Animal Ambassadors travel all over the state of Maryland and beyond, and many also make local and national media appearances, educating about wildlife while representing the Zoo and its commitments to animal welfare and conservation.

What is The Animal Embassy?

The Animal Embassy at The Maryland Zoo is an off-exhibit area that is not open to the public. It is where the Zoo’s “Animal Ambassadors,” or education program animals, live. The Embassy is home to more than 60 individual animals representing more than 40 different species. It is staffed by its own dedicated group of keepers and volunteers and has both indoor and outdoor living space for the animals.