Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii) Spanish name: Dios-te-de, Toucan de Swainson


This large frugivore lives in the canopy of lowland and highland wet forests.


The total range for this bird includes the area between eastern Honduras and northern Colombia.

Physical Description/Interesting Biology

The largest toucan in Central America, the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, is a prominent member of its habitat. These large, brightly marked birds call to each other in piercing tones, especially in the morning, and small flocks can create a boisterous commotion from their conspicuous perches. Groups of about 20 will travel together through and forage in the canopy, semi-open areas, or clearings with remaining tall trees. Closer to nightfall, flocks congregate at tall emergent trees or tall dead snags and call together.

Aside from the male's larger size, the two sexes look alike: a black body bibbed in bright yellow, a white rump, and red on the underside of its tail feathers. The distinctly shaped and bicolor bill is brown and yellow, huge and curved. Although the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan may appear similar to the Keel-billed Toucan, the Chestnut-mandibled has a deeper yellow bib, is somewhat larger, and dominates the Keel-billed at fruiting trees. Toucans have large bills that are hollow, lightweight, and dexterous, enabling the birds to snatch fruit or prey without hazarding a leap onto branches too small for the toucan's weight.

Bright plumage in birds is often related to courtship or territorial behaviors, but copulation for these birds notably lacks any sort of display, precursor, or ritual, and the entire process lasts less than 5 seconds. The mating pair, however, stays together for the season, and forage and parent together. They make their nest in tree cavities in living or dead trees, or in old woodpecker holes for 2 to 3 eggs, and raise the chicks together.

A male will also feed his mate fruit, and they will preen each other. Even after breeding stops, a male will allow only his mate to forage in "his' section of a fruiting tree. Their foraging cooperation is more extensive: often a male arrives first at a tree, and the female follows him soon thereafter; he leaves before all the fruit is eaten, and she finishes it while he moves to the next tree. This strategy of dominating two trees at once helps both of them gain more food, because most other birds leave toucans arrive. The Chestnut-mandibled may also chase the Keel-billed Toucan out of water-filled hollows that they use for bathing and drinking.

This toucan has an important ecological role as a seed disperser for certain trees such as Virola; if, however, an individual tree produces many fruits at once, the toucan may stay nearby and eat a lot from it, and does not disperse the seeds. The Chestnut-mandibled Toucan is usually visible in the canopy, but sometimes needs to search through the understory or on the forest floor for small animals to round out their diet.


This toucan eats a variety of fruit, including different seeds, berries, drupes, arilloids, and fruit fleshes. They will also take insects or small snakes, and hunt for birds' eggs, nestlings, and lizards.


Adult females are generally 52 cm long and weigh 580 g; males are 56 cm and weigh 750 g.

Brief Taxonomy

Order: Piciformes
Family: Ramphastidae


H. F. Howe in: Janzen, Daniel H. Costa Rican Natural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Henderson, Carrol L. Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002.

Skutch, Alexander F. and F. Gary Stiles. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Utica: Cornell University Press,1989.

Stiles, F. G. in: Janzen, Daniel H. Costa Rican Natural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Kricher, John. A Neotropical Companion: an introduction to the animals, plants, and ecosystems of the New World tropics. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1997.

Amy Strieter, Wildlife Writer