Toucans... My Experiences with their Care and Breeding

by Amado Summers

Around 30 years ago, as a youngster in the 70's, I walked into a pet shop and saw my first Toucan up close. I was awestruck by it's exotic beauty, it's charming character, and it's colors... yes, I was hooked. I have spent many years since then learning about these wonderful birds. I have gone though many ups and downs, and much frustration to lead me to where I am today, successfully keeping and breeding Toucans as a full time endeavor.

Toucans, Toucanets and Aracaris all belong to the family Ramphastidae and are commonly known as "Ramphastids". There are approximately 42 recognized species however I think there might be a few mix-ups in subspecies, but I will leave that for the ornithologists to argue about!

From the largest of the Toucans, the Toco and Keel Bill, to their smaller cousins the Green Aracari and Emerald Toucanet, all Toucans are extremely beautiful, fascinating birds. They can offer much enjoyment to aviculturists either as a pet or as a breeding pair. From those who chose to house a handraised Toucan in a large indoor aviary, to those who keep pairs in large outdoor flights, there are many ways to enjoy Toucans.

All Toucans originate from Mexico, Central and South America and are a family that has been vanishing from American aviculture. One by one, species are gone. Those that just a few short years ago you could find easily and cheaply are now gone. Have you seen any Ariel Toucans for sale lately ? How about Citron Throated ? Cuvier's ? The list goes on and on and on.

Since that first Toucan came into my life years ago, I have been enthralled, fascinated and at times literally obsessed with Toucans. I have spent much time, money and effort in studying them, searching for them and yes, successfully breeding them ! For over 25 years I have dealt with the highs and lows of "Toucanitus", which can be just as afflicting as "parrot fever". Read on my dear future Ramphastid lover!

Acquisition
Up until 1993, with the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) which ended commercial import of CITES listed species, many species of Toucans were still imported. Although never entering the country in great numbers like many psittacine species, they were still widely and cheaply available. Tocos, Red Bills, Channel Bills were all very common in the 300 - 800 dollar range in the 80's. Due to a seemingly never ending supply and high losses due to the then largely unrecognized Hemochromatosis or Iron Storage Disease, hardly anyone bothered attempts at breeding Toucans. (See Hemochromatosis below)

Well things are changed now, the psittacine market has largely crashed and burnt, Toucans are in demand and their prices are skyrocketing. I recently paid prices in the Hyacinth range for some Toco pairs ! Yes, friends, Toucans are no longer a "poor mans bird". Ever try telling a girlfriend you just dumped 100K into a few pairs of Toucans? First rule in "Toucan 101" ... this is not advised, better to lie and say you lost the money in Enron stock.

Note : There are three non-CITES species still being imported, two are readily available at a reasonable price, the Swainson's Toucan and Collared Aracari. The third, the Guyana Toucanet, is being brought in sporadically. There are other non-listed species, but most from countries that do not allow for their export. Why certain species of Toucans were left off CITES is a political issue that someone else could better explain.

My Aviary
For years I kept my Toucans in outdoor flights. Living in a temperate area I had to catch them up every fall and keep them caged up all winter. This was stressful on the birds and keeping multiple pairs of Toucans in cages indoors is a messy, time consuming affair. Toucans can handle fairly low temperatures if they have protection from wind and rain. But if you are in an area that gets consistent below freezing temperatures you must have an attached heated shelter or you will have to move them inside in the winter.

For quite some time I contemplated another option and in 1999, after extensive research, I built my Toucans a passive solar aviary that allows them to stay in their flights year-round. Living in northern New Mexico, which is a "hotbed" in passive solar construction, I studied many different concepts. The structure my birds now live in is the brain child of Taos, New Mexico Architect, Michael Reynolds, and is called an "earthship". This is a structure with 3 foot thick rammed earth walls, south facing glass glazing and super insulated roof. The whole building is buried 6 feet into the earth, with a rear berm. The combination of thermal mass, solar gain and super insulated roof make a structure that maintains a tropical type temperature year round. I have seen outside temperatures of 10 below zero in the winter, 105 in the summer and inside the temperature remains a relatively steady 70 - 80 degrees year round. This is without any fans, heaters, air conditioners. In fact, this aviary is completely off the power grid and generates it's own warmth and cooling using the principles of solar energy and thermal mass. This allows me to have plenty of tropical foliage inside to provide an environment my Toucans love. Additionally, I am actually able to grow some fruit for them, in a 75' long greenhouse on the south side of the building.

One thing that is very important when building such an aviary, is having access to constant fresh air. I have visited zoo conservatory type aviaries in the winter that are stuffy, smelly, musty places. My aviary is designed with a natural venting system, using front windows that are low to the ground and operable skylights in the rear of each room. This allows, even in the coldest of weather, to have a flow of fresh air over each flight. The whole massive structure of this aviary acts like a "battery". If I were to open all windows in the middle of a winter night, as soon as I closed up the structure it would be back to a warm temperature shortly.

In such a year round warm environment, I have to be very diligent in keeping aviaries cleaned. If I go more than 10 days without cleaning each flight, I will get literally swamped with flies. Try as I might, there seems to always be one stray fly inside that can willingly "repopulate" his species! Toucans have a very large soft dropping which is perfect for breeding flies! I must also keep the area around the food bowls clean, to keep bugs to a minimum, which can be host to several different internal parasites. I do not use any chemicals inside, preferring to constantly dust a layer of Diatomaceous Earth to help control all insects. All the waste from the flights is composted and used to fertilize the plants inside. All water from the bowls is swished out each day and used on the plants. All aviaries are constructed with the birds well being in mind. If birds are comfortable in their surroundings, they are much more likely to breed. In all species of birds, it always seems the aviculturists that know their birds, name them and offer more of a friendly, loving atmosphere do much better than those who have rows and rows of sterile flights with numbers on them. Breeding Toucans to me, is much more of an art, than a science. Although I do have plans on increasing my flock size, I feel when you have to start hiring employees to do most or all the work, your production level, and the birds comfort level will both drop.

The first aviary that I have built using these methods has worked out well and the birds are are reproducing well. I have several more similar structures planned in future years. My initial experiments in my new aviary has my Toucans in much smaller flights than most people use. My Toucans are currently kept in flights approximately 6' wide, 7' high, and 12' long. My future buildings will allow larger flights. Being very active birds, I would never advocate attempting to breed toucans in typical commercial parrot breeders, "stack 'em deep, sell em cheap, chicken ranch type" standing cages. For long term health and breeding success, the larger the flight you can provide the better. However, they do not require a 25' flight for success.

Hemochromatosis
Some of my favorite authors on softbilled birds of the 50's, 60's, and 70's, although well intentioned, didn't know what they were doing. Their misinformation doomed many Toucans to die from Hemochromatosis, or Iron Storage Disease. This misinformation is STILL being spread. Walk into any mall pet shop, look through the books and you will still find lots of the same old information being reprinted...."feed dog food and mice", yikes!

Hemochromatosis, is a disease that has literally wiped out hundreds, if not thousands of Toucans in captivity throughout aviculture history. It is only the last several years we have a handle on this devastating disease. Although there is still controversy over hemochromatosis, the bottom line is that in this author's experience, it is a nutritionally based disease. For years I had Toucans dropping right and left to hemochromatosis. Since the introduction of new Low Iron diets, I have not lost a single bird that I raised myself to this disease. Refer to the dietary section of this article for more info.

Though with many psittacines, you can feed an inadequate diet, keep them alive for years and maybe even breed them, not so with Toucans. If a Toucan is fed improperly, Hemochromatosis waits with an evil grin around every corner! The strange thing about the disease is that a bird can look and act fine and normal, then all of a sudden they just "Keel over" (Toco over?) and that's it. This is the main reason that buying adult Toucans that have changed hands several times is so risky. Just recently, against my better judgment I purchased a "young proven" (??) pair of Keel Bills off the Internet, only to watch them both succumb to hemochromatosis within weeks. If you obtain a young, healthy, domestic Toucan that has always been on a low Iron diet, and you keep this bird on a low iron diet, hemochromatosis is basically a non issue!

Diet
You must feed your Toucans correctly! If you don't, you will not simply have an unhealthy Toucan but you will have a dead Toucan! All the old books, recommended feeding either mynah pellets of the day or dog foods, which were loaded with Iron. Unless feeding babies, Toucans do not require live food for general upkeep. They need access to free choice fresh fruit, along with a protein source. Pellets are provided as a "side dish" to supply protein, vitamins and minerals that our fruits do not provide. I use newly developed, every batch tested, Low Iron Softbill pellets. Always seek the lowest available, it is currently thought best to keep the Iron at under 100 ppm, (parts per million) preferably, under 70 ppm. Many supposedly "low iron" pellets have been tested by private aviculturists, and found to be far higher than the manufacturer promised.

Toucans survive mainly on a Frugivorous diet in the wild! Yes, they eat some other foods, such as insects, nestling birds and eggs, but I think this quite possibly this could be mainly when they are feeding chicks, and at a far lower rate of consumption that many have always assumed.

I am currently doing research on other type of diets, without pellets and will publish information when available. In short, I feel we still do not know what the "best" diet is for Toucans. Many people use Papaya as a base for their fruit mix. I do not have year round access to Papaya, so I use melons and apple as my base and replace the melon with papaya when I can get a hold of it. There as many fruit mixes as their are aviculturists, and the exact mixture probably doesn't matter too much, as long as it is a non-citrus. Citrus is thought to allow increased uptake of Iron.

The current mix I feed my Toucans, along with my Mynahs, Toucanets, and Aracaris, consists of 20% melon, 20% soft red apple, 10% frozen blueberries, 10% frozen corn, peas, and carrots, 10% grapes, the remaining 30% is whatever I have on hand in fruits, such as pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries and bananas. The apples are washed well to remove any waxy coating and cored un-peeled. All seeds are removed from the melons, all frozen items are thawed. All is chopped to about small marble consistency. If large Toucans are given larger chunks of fruit, they tend to fly away with it, hammer it on a perch and waste a lot. I find with smaller chunks they will generally just do the standard "toucan toss back" and swallow it, no waste.

Due to a problem with colors fading in some species of my Toucans, I am currently experimenting with adding paprika, cooked yams, and other items high in beta carotene. Although the pellets I currently feed, have the coloring agent canthaxanthin added, apparently it is not enough. I have seen birds outside that were faded as well, so I don't feel keeping my birds indoors is the entire problem. It is probably a combination of not enough natural sunlight and beta carotene. My second experimental passive solar aviary will attempt to help solve this problem by numerous operable skylights above each flight, allowing natural sunlight to reach each and every bird.

Water is mainly used for bathing by Toucans which have proper fruit supplied, but they will drink some. Toucans with their large beaks cannot drink out of small water bowls. I use large, 9" minimum large dog crocks. These will not tip over, as the birds love to perch on the side and "dive in " for bathing. If your water quality is in question, high in Iron, and other minerals, bottled or distilled is recommended.

Breeding
Yes, Toucans are being bred in captivity, but in very low numbers. Toucans tend to have a very short breeding season, in my situation, usually June, July, and August, and this combined with things such as egg eaters, egg throwers, baby eaters, etc. make breeding them very challenging, and exciting! The smaller species, Toucanets, and Aracaris, tend to have a longer breeding season.

Of course the first thing required is having a healthy, mature, sexed pair. Most large Toucans can reproduce at 2 years, but seem to have more luck starting at 3 or 4. Smaller species can breed at 1 year. Having a pair that gets along is important. Some species, and/or individuals will be aggressive towards their mate. Normally it is the male, but I have also had pairs where the hen was the aggressor. Most mature Toucans can be visually sexed by their beak size, males being longer. But there is always the occasional short beaked male sitting next to a long beaked hen that can sometimes make it confusing. All birds therefore should be either surgically or DNA sexed. Usually this just confirms my guess, but I have been wrong.

When first introducing new birds, you must keep a very close eye. That long beak when jabbing out can severely injure, and even kill it's potential mate. Some of my pairs that get along fine when in their aviary, never would get along in large cages back when I used to have to catch them all up for the winter. Of the species I currently keep, Keel Bills are overall more aggressive towards their mates. In the small guys, Emerald Toucanets tend to be a bit more "Scarlet Macaw ish" than other species. When a pair has problems initially, I don't give up. I try all the "tricks" of successful aviculturists such as "howdy cages", trying in a new aviary, changing something in the aviary or simply separating and trying again later.

A suitable nestlog must be provided. Although the palm log is the most common due to its plentiful supply for breeders in warm areas, and ease of hollowing out, I use Aspen logs. A problem with palm logs is that the interior is so soft, many pairs will go all the way through very quickly. Another problem I have recently had with older Palm logs, is when they dry out and harden, the sides can splinter off, producing dangerous sharp twigs the birds can swallow. I do not have this problem with Aspens. I search my local mountains for old downed trees of a suitable size, then hollow them out with a chainsaw. I have to find logs that are just rotted enough to let me dig out the center, but still hard on the outside. I find that Toucans are not very picky about size, shape, color, etc., as long as it is within reason. Most toucans showing breeding behavior, will fly to and inspect ANY type log with a hole in it. I use logs that have between 12 - 30 inch depths, and 4 - 6 inch square entrance holes. Interior is in the 8" - 9" inch diameter range for smaller species like Channel Bills and Keel Bills, and 10" - 12" range for the larger species, such as Tocos, and Swainsons. My depths are far shallower than other breeders use, this is so I can get at the eggs/babies without taking the log down. All logs have wooden top, that is easily accessible, standing on a ladder through a door in the top of the flight. The interior sides are left very rough to allow easy access to and from the bottom, which is always just a natural concave surface. Toucans do not use nesting material. If fact, they spend a lot of time inside pecking like drunken woodpeckers trying to chisel more out. With some of my pairs I must place a false bottom, chiseled from a hard wood, so they won't go all the way through. This obviously, would be disastrous!

Several signs will show up when your pair is getting down to business. Constant purring, the male will "cough up" bits of fruit or whole grapes and offer to his mate. They will both be in the nestlog a lot. They will lay 1 - 5 eggs, most common being 3 or 4, and take 16 days to hatch. The tiny helpless young grow very fast, but the tiny little day old pterodactyl looking pink blobs, show no signs of the beauties they will soon become. Many pairs, due to stress, being too near other pairs or other disturbances, will eat the eggs, toss them out or eat the chicks. These are just a few of the challenging things about breeding Toucans!

If all goes well, the larger species will fledge at approximately 7 weeks, and be weaned by around 2 weeks later. Handraising of Toucans from the egg is a touchy, delicate art, making day old psittacines seem easy. I have been experimenting the last decade with this, but as of now it is still a gamble pulling day 1 chicks, or incubating eggs. If you have lots of psittacine experience and really "know the ropes" incubating and hatching it is feasible. Problems include bacterial, fungal, and non absorption of the yolk sack. I hope within a few years to have this down to a more exact science but as of now, feeding day 1 Toucans is my opinion, is a risky business. I have had grand success, and heartbreaking failure. Pulling chicks after 7 days of parent feeding is the easiest way to guarantee success. Chicks are fairly easy to raise at this point on many different diets.

In previous years, it was written that baby Toucans required lower temperatures than psittacines. This was based upon seeing parent reared chicks not being brooded closely. This is entirely untrue. In fact, Toucans require higher temperatures. Day 1's need around 99 degrees Fahrenheit, with high humidity, to prevent dehydration. We have really messed up the natural order of things when trying to handraise day 1's, and what the parents do, with all the natural foods and immunities they pass along to the chicks, really has nothing in common with what we are trying to accomplish. Believe me, if I ever had a pair of Toucans that would successfully feed their young, I would never attempt at pulling day 1's or eggs. But unfortunately, many Toucans in captivity for a variety of reasons won't raise their young, but will produce fertile eggs.

Although the Iron in most handfeeding formulas for psittacines is extremely high, it does not seem to affect a baby Toucans liver, as long as they are weaned off it at a very early age. This is probably due to the high iron needs of a growing chick. I make a mix using standard handrearing formulas with a little applesauce, or other fruit added. As baby Toucans have no crops, you must be very careful feeding them. Aspiration is very common. You must be slow, let them swallow after each mouthful. Day 1 Toucans need to be fed every 1 - 2 hours for around 16 hours per day, probably all through the night for the first few days helps. They can be switched to every 2 - 3 hours at a week. I usually go for between 10- 20% of their body weight each feeding. In other words a chick when weighing 100 grams would get 10 - 20 ccs per feeding. The smaller chicks take a higher percentage, as they get larger, it drops closer to the 10% level. This is just a guideline, as each chick must be treated as an individual.

Weaning is a fairly simple affair, as soon as their eyes are open and they are starting to feather, start offering pieces of fruit and pellets with your fingers. Usually by the time they are fledged, they are already picking them out of the bowl. I watch the babies very carefully when stopping the handfeeding, as sometimes they will revert and require another week or two of formula.

Notes on a few species:
Although this is yet a small sample of Toucans in aviculture, these are a few of the species I have personal experience with. Other than certain species having the tendency to be more aggressive towards their mates than others, most breeding behavior is quite similar in all species.

Toco (Ramphastos toco)
The Toco is considered the "Rolls Royce" of Toucans, along with possibly the Keel Bill. Tocos, as all large Toucans have become increasingly hard to find. I remember reading an article in Cage Bird Magazine in the 70's how to find Hyacinths at the time, "it was easier to lie your way into Heaven". Well, the same could be said, about finding young healthy Tocos at a reasonable price in today's market. This pretty much applies to any large Toucan, other than Swainson's. Tocos are the largest of all the Toucans but tend to have one of the calmer dispositions, compared some of the smaller species. A baby Toco will always stay sweeter with less work that a Keel Bill.

Keel Bill (Ramphastos sulphuratus)
The Keel Bill is probably the most popular species I raise. This is due to its multicolor beak, which is the closest to "Toucan Sam" as it comes! Keel Bills have always been hard to find, as even during the heyday of imports in the 80's none were brought in. Although I love reading in Bates and Busenbarks book that in the early 60's Keel Bills were "inexpensive, and quite prevalent", that was before my time and man have things changed. Keel Bills are notorious for problems with hemochromatosis. A high percentage of older Keel Bills I have obtained have died of this disease. But as with other species, kept on proper diets they can be very hardy birds.

Swainson's, aka Chestnut- Mandibled (Ramphastos swainsonii)
The Swainson was a highly coveted and sought after bird back in the 60's when Tocos and Keel Bills were a "dime a dozen". Then a few years back, they were left off CITES and some started coming into the US. Several importers are still bringing them in and they are now the only large Toucan in plentiful supply at a reasonable price. They are gorgeous birds. If handraised they tame up nicely. They have a HUGE drawback compared to their Toco and Keel Bill cousins however. In the Toucan world, there are "croakers" and there are "whistlers" and unfortunately Swainsons fall into the latter category. And do they ever! Swainson's can literally drive you nuts if you keep them in a pet environment. While Toco's, Keels, and other "croakers" have a frog like croak, the "yelp" of a Swainsons is part whistle - part scream and can be quite annoying. The only other Toucan that is found in the US that is in the "whistler" category, is the Red Bill. Swainson's, although being in current plentiful supply in the US, have never been bred much. Most "handfed domestic" Swainsons Toucans you see are all imports. Unless the bird has a closed band they are more than likely imports.

Channel Bill (Ramphastos vitellinus)
The Channel Bill was one of the most common and cheapest Toucan in the 80's. Now they are extremely hard to find. With their black beaks and colorful chests, they are a very dramatic little beauty compared to Keels and Tocos. I have had people whom have never saw a Toucan say that they are the prettiest birds I have.

Can Toucans make good Pets?
This all depends on who is keeping them. We all have different lifestyles and ways of keeping our creatures. If you desire a completely spotless house, there probably isn't ANY bird that will do for you. Yes, it goes without saying, any fruit eating bird can make a mess. But if you can sweep around the cage daily, mop once a week or so, it is manageable. Although I and many others have kept Toucans inside in large Macaw type cages, paying the money for a heavy wrought Iron gauge cage is overkill and is probably too small. Large finch type indoor aviaries would be superior, to where the birds can actually get a short flight back and forth from their perches. Something in the 6' tall, 6' wide, and at least 3' deep range would be more suitable than most standard size Macaw cages. Toucans do not climb and chew on wire as most psittacines do, so you can use most any light gauge wire for indoor enclosures. More important than the strength, or gauge of the wire is the spacing. Wild Toucans are notorious for injuring their beaks when put into wire cages that they can get their beaks caught in. There is no perfect size, but you either need small enough where they can't get their beaks in, or big enough so they can get them out. I am using 1" x 1" lately and it works OK. The smaller sizes of wire can lead to some birds breaking the tips of their beaks off, while a size of say, 1" x 2" allows a slot that a bird can get their beak into and literally gouge out a "notch" in their beak, and possibly lose the entire beak. The more calm a Toucan is, the less chance of something like this occurring. It is most common on completely wild, newly imported birds.

Toucans, when handraised, can be very loving, affectionate birds. Once you have a tame baby Toucan perch on your arm, purring softly as you caress his head, watch his eyes close in ecstasy, watch him playfully and gently take your hand and fingers into his beak, watch him catch grapes from across the room, have him fly to you from across the room begging to play, well, you must might become as big of a Toucan lover as I am!

Various Toucan Notes
One interesting thing is the way Toucans sleep. They tuck their long beak into their wings, with their head turned, but the really funky way they "crash" is that their tails stick straight up. I always chuckle when I walk into a room of sleeping Toucans, looking like some dead birds a drunk Taxidermist has been working with!

Although Toucans can't really bite hard compared to a psittacine, if an angry bird gets a hold of your finger, they have a style of shaking their head very viciously that can cause a bit of pain! Even my tame baby toucans are never on my shoulder and I keep them away from eyes, ears and nose! Once you have your "beak" tweaked by an angry Toco, you'll never again give him the chance!

As previously mentioned, Toucans can at times be host to several different internal parasites. It is advisable to have fecal samples taken at least twice a year to keep an upper hand on this. Although catching up and de-worming Toucans is not my favorite chore, sometimes it is a must to keep the birds in prime health. I am currently attempting to eliminate all potential hosts of parasites, such as sowbugs and other small insects that can crawl into a Toucans feed bowl, and either purposely, or accidentally be ingested.

These buggers LOVE anything shiny, such as nails, bits of wire, screws or any small sharp piece of metal. And they will play with them, toss them around in their beak and sometimes, with deadly consequences, swallow them. Recently I lost one of my best Keel Bill hens, when a 1" drywall screw fell into her aviary. All Toucan cages or flights must be closely inspected and watched for any loose metal objects. It is the most common cause of accidental death in captive Toucans!

We do not have a lot of data concerning lifespan of Toucans. We do have the occasional 25 year old bird hanging around here and there, so it is thought that 20- 25 years is a good guess. I would say any Toucan that is 15 or older is on borrowed time, especially if they are older imports! It is very easy to pick out baby Toucans, especially in species such as Tocos, and Keel Bills, as their beaks are much less colorful and shorter than an adult. Once the bird is mature, is becomes very difficult to tell the age. If I see lots of overlapping beak growth on a bird, I would suspect it to be an older bird, but it can be very difficult guess. I currently close band all my babies, and keep detailed records, so in the future I will know the exact age, and bloodline of every Toucan I ever produce. This is something that has been sorely lacking in many Toucans bred in the US, and has led to a lot of inbred birds floating around.

Although as previously stated, some species of Toucans have a call that is a bit noisy, compared to most Macaws, Cockatoos and Amazons, Toucans are far quieter. And if you don't have the whistlers, it isn't bad at all. Just croaking and purring....sorry Swainson's and Red Bill lovers. When I recently sold my last pair of Macaws, after a lifetime of being "used" to their noise, it was quite a shock walking around the aviary without earplugs and being able to hear myself think for once!

Now everything isn't all Rosy in Toucan land though. To feed these seemingly always hungry long beaked buggers requires quite an expenditure if you have more than a pair or two. I would say it costs far more to feed Toucans than psittacines, if you are doing it correctly, and especially if you don't have access to the cheap fruit prices areas like California does. I know that you can get cases currently of the large Mexican Papaya in LA for $8 - 11, where here in New Mexico I pay $22. I also know that the Low Iron Softbill pellets I currently use, cost about 3 times what my parrot pellets cost!