Toucan do it!

The toucan is widely recognized for being the iconic symbol for a popular cereal brand, but did you know there are actually around 35 different species of toucans? There are several species of birds in the toucan family – some have names like toucanet or aracari – but all have their uniquely large, brightly colored bills. The bill of a toucan can be up to four times the size of the bird’s head and nearly as long as the bird’s body. Speaking of large, the Toco toucan is the largest toucan species, growing up to 25 inches long.

The toco toucan has a black body with a white neck, orange around the eyes and a patch of red feathers on its rear undertail. The beak is bright orange with a black tip. This impressive bill can measure more than seven inches in length but is lightweight, hollow and made of keratin with thin sections of bone for support. Scientists are still discovering why the bill is so large for the bird’s size, but believe it serves in courtship behaviors and as a defense mechanism.

Inside of the bill is the toucan’s long, feather-like tongue that aids in catching food and tossing it into the bird’s mouth and down the throat. Toco toucans are omnivorous, primarily eating mostly fruits, as well as insects, reptiles, smaller birds and eggs.

Toco toucans are poor flyers and often hop from branch to branch, or tree to tree, to get around. This species can be found in tropical rainforests in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay. There are estimated to be more than 10,000 individuals in the wild, but the population is decreasing, and the pet trade is one of the contributing factors as well as habitat loss. This species is currently listed as a least concern for extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

At the Virginia Zoo, Tia the toco toucan lives behind-the-scenes but is a program animal ambassador and can often be seen during educational programs, including animal pop-ups and safari camps. Tia hatched on June 28, 2016 at the Dallas World Aquarium and arrived at the Virginia Zoo in February 2017. Tia was injured as a chick while she was still in a nest with her parents. As a result of this injury, her wing had to be amputated but this injury does not impair her ability to get around.

Keepers say Tia is quite the character and that she absolutely loves toys, especially anything she can carry around. Plush animals, as well as baby or infant toys are her favorites and usually end up “safe” in her water bucket. When Tia isn’t playing, she often enjoys sunning herself. Add in some beak scratches and rubs, and Tia will make sweet sounds before falling asleep on a Keeper – but not just any Keeper. Tia is particular about who she works with, so Keepers work a little extra harder to build a relationship with Tia. Reaching a milestone or having a training breakthrough with Tia is quite the feat for some staff!

toucan interacting with Keeper
Tia during a training session with Keeper Tara

Tia’s diet consists of a moistened softbill grain and a variety of produce including some of her favorites – corn, peas, red peppers, grapes, blueberries, kiwi and superworms. She will pick up her food with the end of her bill and toss the food into the back of her mouth with ease!

Tia the toco toucan is not to be confused with a different type of bird species also found at the Zoo, the Rhinoceros hornbill. Although both species have vibrantly-colored beaks and black bodies, they live on two different continents and belong to different families. You can read more about this lookalike species here.

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