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Choosing a Toucan

By: Virginia Wells

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No matter how you look at it, if you are looking for a companion bird that is intelligent, curious and entertaining, the toucan fits the bill.

Toucans are members of the family Ramphastidae and are found primarily in the rain forests and open woodlands of tropical America, from southern Mexico to Bolivia to northern Argentina. They were some of the first birds noticed by the conquering Europeans, and the courts of Europe enjoyed their flamboyant colors and outrageous bills.

Toucans live high among the treetops, sometimes as high as 9,000 feet. There are 38 species of toucans, the largest being the toco toucan (you may have seen him on a Fruit Loop cereal box), which is about 20 inches in length. Four of the most popular unique and energetic species used as pets are the toco toucan, red-billed toucan, keel-billed toucan and channel-billed toucan.

Appearance and Personality

The toucan's most prominent feature is his bill. It is big – sometimes as long as his body – and vividly colored, and despite its appearance, it is not as heavy as it looks. Although they belong to the soft-bill family, their bills are definitely not soft either. The bill is made from a porous honeycomb-like material, which makes it strong but lightweight. The relation between the size of the bill increases with the size of the species, with small toucans having bills more normal in size and larger toucans having huge bills.

Toucans use their long colorful bills for many purposes. They are able to reach fruits from the ends of branches too thin to bear their weight. They seize the fruit and toss their heads upward as they throw the food back into the throat. Toucans offer food to their companions and may also preen them with the tips of their bills. The pattern of the bill varies with each species and helps birds to recognize each other. The bills are also important for attracting the female and for defending their young against predators.

The toucan is about 16 to 20 inches long. Their legs and feet are strong and made for moving on and between the branches. They don't fly well because their bodies are too heavy and awkward to allow long and elegant flight. They prefer to hop from branch to branch. When they do fly, they flap their wings a few times, then glide.

The colors vary among species. Their colorful plumage and even more colorful bills – the most colorful bills of all birds – are perfect camouflage in the treetops. From a distance they look more like fruit than birds. Their bodies are usually black, white, red, yellow, blue or green. Their bills are black and ivory, totally ivory or mainly fiery red.

Toucans do not talk, but they are very noisy. They croak, yelp, bark and bugle, or they purr when they are contented. Their loud calls can be heard a half mile away in the jungle. They are playful and enjoy exploring their surroundings. They like sitting on your shoulder or a perch and may be taught to perform tricks, including playing catch.

Toucans are beautifully colored and animated, and they provide hours of enjoyment for any owner. Nevertheless, they are not for people who have limited amounts of room or time. Their diets must be strictly maintained or they will not survive. Also, they can be expensive, with prices ranging in the thousands of dollars. Toucans live approximately 15 years.

Feeding

Because they are soft-billed, they primarily eat fruit, eggs and sometimes small animals such as insects, snakes, frogs and some small mammals. In the wild they consume fruits from as many as 100 species of plants and trees, but companion toucans do not require the wide variety that they eat in the wild – as long as the fruit is fresh. Toucans do not usually drink water because they get all the water they need by eating fruit. They should not be fed seeds.

Toucans love papaya, but they also enjoy grapes, cantaloupe, apple and banana. Once apple and banana turn brown, however, toucans tend to lose interest. Fruits high in citric acid such as oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, pineapple and tomatoes should be avoided, because the acid content is thought to impede their digestive system and facilitate the uptake of iron.

Toucans need a diet low in iron because they are genetically predisposed to "iron storage disease" (hemochromatosis), which is an accumulation of dietary iron in the liver. The level soon reaches toxic levels and causes the death of the bird.

Nevertheless, your companion toucan's fruit diet must be supplemented with a low iron protein source, such as Science Diet Dog Kibble or Kaytee Exact Mynah/Softbill. Both are available from pet and feed stores.

Fresh water should be provided at all times, although your toucan is more likely to bathe in it than drink it.

Grooming

Toucans are better off if their wings are not clipped. They do not have the ability to use their beaks for climbing and have a difficult time getting around the cage if their wings are clipped. If clipping is absolutely necessary, make sure their perches are placed appropriately to allow them total mobility.

Although toucans are tropical birds, they don't tolerate hot weather. In temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, they need to have showers or an available bathing dish.

Housing

Toucans can be housed indoors or out in large cages or aviaries. They require plenty of room so that they can stretch their wings and run around. Cages should be the size used for large parrots like cockatoos or macaws, with outdoor cages at least 4 feet by 8 feet by 4 feet for smaller toucans like toucanets and aracaris. It should be even larger for the larger toucans, at least 8 feet by 12 feet by 8 feet. You can have a cage built, but make it very tall because toucans are most comfortable at higher elevations. There should be shade available at all times if housing outdoors.

Toucans are solitary birds and are avoided by other birds in the wild because toucans will fight and kill if provoked. It is not advisable to house different species of toucans together, as they will kill each other. Even introducing two of the same species should be done carefully.

Toucans can be messy, so if you house your pet indoors, you might consider covering the cage with plastic or plexiglass to contain the mess.

Breeding

Breeding season is generally from March to May. Do not breed them during hot summer months or cold winter months; the eggs will be unhealthy and the young will be sickly. Give the breeding pair plenty of room – at least the normal size of their cage or aviary – and make three of the four walls solid to give them a sense of security and privacy. They must be housed alone.

The female toucan lays three to four pure white elliptical-shaped eggs and incubates them for 15 to 16 days; incubation is done by both parents, as is feeding of the fledglings.

Toucan newborns are nest-reared, or nidiculous, and are helpless. They are blind and naked at birth, and their eyes don't open for about 3 weeks. They are dependent upon their parents to feed them for about 8 weeks. Toucan babies begin to leave the nest after 40 to 50 days.

You should supplement the parents' diet with live crickets and soak their kibble/softbill food in water for the entire time the chicks are being fed.

Occasionally, toucans will not rear their young, which makes it necessary to hand feed the chicks. Hand feeding is also necessary if you want a tame bird. Since toucans do not have crops, care must be taken not to overfeed. Feed small amounts and allow the chick to swallow before offering more. Toucans are fed five to seven times a day, depending on age.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Toucans are relatively healthy birds but are susceptible to the following:

  • Internal parasites
  • Hemochromatosis (iron storage disease)
  • Gout
  • E.coli and salmonella
  • Pseudotuberculosis

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