Keel-billed Toucan Ramphastos sulfuratus

  • Order: Piciformes
  • Family: Ramphastidae
  • Polytypic: 2 subspecies
  • Authors: Revee Jones and Carole S. Griffiths


Breeding Season

Breeds from March to June in Costa Rica (Skutch 1971) and in April in Panama (Van Tyne 1929).  In Panama, this is the dry season but Skutch (1971) observed breeding in the rainy season in Costa Rica.

Toucans raise a single brood and probably remain mated throughout the year. They return to the same nest the next breeding season as long as the previous one was successful. Toucans acquire a nest up to 6 weeks before laying eggs. Because the number of suitable natural tree cavities is small compared with the toucan population, this may occur to assure the pair of a safe place to nest when the proper time comes (Van Tyne 1929).


In natural cavities, 20 feet up, in trees including Inga, Hura, Pentaclethra macroloba and Cupania.  The open hole of the cavity is small. Although toucans start nesting well before laying eggs, they do not use the cavity as a roosting place (Van Tyne 1929, Skutch 1971).

Toucans clean the cavity, leaving only a few chips to line the nest. They also bring small green leaves (up to two and three inches in length) into the nest nearly every day. When the leaves dry up they are frequently carried away again (Van Tyne 1929). These may function as insect repellents (as in hawks' nests, McDonald et al. 1995). The nest is a mosaic of seeds and pits of various sizes, shapes, and colors resulting from the toucans' habit of disgorging the pits of fruits which form their food. As a result, the young are reared in a nest with a "cobble-stone" lining of fruit pits the size of large marbles (Van Tyne 1929).

Clutch Size and Eggs

A female toucan lays between 1-4 eggs, one egg per day. The eggs are rounded in shape with one end slightly more pointed than the other. They are dull white in color and sculptured with irregular pitted grooves extending lengthwise along the egg, becoming most prominent at the large end. At the small end of the egg they become less distinct or disappear entirely. The yolk is a rich orange color (Van Tyne 1929).

Parental Care

Incubation begins after all eggs are laid. Both parents are involved. The sessions last from four minutes to almost two hours, with one observed pair keeping their eggs covered for about 70% of an 11 hour period (Skutch 1971). The total length of incubation time is not known. In smaller toucans, e.g., the Emerald Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus), incubation lasts 16 days (Skutch 1971).

Feeding nestlings and removing fecal matter is done by both parents. In one observation, daytime brooding was abandoned early but a single parent spent the night with the nestling for most, if not all, of its stay in the nest (Skutch 1971).

The hatchlings fledge at about 45 days (Van Tyne 1929, Skutch 1971).

Juvenile Development

Details are from Van Tyne (1929) and Skutch (1971).

At first pipping: The young bird constantly repeats a low rasping note.

At hatch: Pink skin is naked and eyes are tightly closed. The lower mandible of the short bill is slightly longer than the upper mandible. Around each heel joint is a pad, a ring of light-colored projections. Nestling continuously utters a squeaky buzz.

Day 4:  The pattern of the feather tracts of the body is visible and the ten tail feathers become a row of little spikes a millimeter or two in length.

Day 10: Still naked, the skin is pinkish color at first, changing to a golden hue within a few hours. Two mandibles are equal in length.

Day 14: Still naked but all of the feather tracts are well marked. The rudiments of the rectrices are a little longer, and a darkening on the wings is caused by the buds of the flight feathers. The eyes still are closed.

Day 15: The wing feathers emerge and then grow rapidly.

Day 17: Eyes are partly open. The rudiments of body feathers are visible as dark points beneath the pink skin. The squeaky buzz vocalizations at times increase to a loud cry.

Day 18: Nestlings began to flap their wings vigorously.

Day 19: The secondaries begin a rapid growth.

Day 20: The contour feathers over all the body except on the head, break through the skin and began to grow rapidly. The eyes began to open. The voices of the nestlings change abruptly from almost constant buzzing or rasping note, to a low harsh zorna, wraa, wraa.

Day 23: The tail feathers began to grow rapidly.

Day 24: The remiges and the upper coverts of the secondaries began to unsheath.

Day 30: Eyes are wide open. Remiges and coverts are rapidly expanding from the ends of their sheaths. The body is still largely naked, the dorsal feathers just protruding from the ends of their short sheaths. There is a crest of pinfeathers along the top of the head, but the rest of the head is quite naked.

Day 33: Feathers are coming out rapidly all over the body, even the red feathers of the lower throat.

Day 37: Nesting is feathered.

Day 47: Nestling fledges.

Recommended Citation

Jones, R. and C. S. Griffiths (2011). Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), version 1.0. In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.