Freeflight Candidate: Toucans

toucan flying

Photo by Of: Keel Billed Toucan

Fiji is my three year old Swainson Toucan and ever since learning and really just diving into the world of freeflight, I've wanted to convert my entire flock over to it! Especially after having much success with my Congo African Grey, Cressi. I have been considering long and hard if I should give it a try with my toucan, Fiji. She has never been too keen on flying nor has she been that great or graceful at it in the past. She has always preferred to hop from point A to B instead of fly. She had bad luck growing up and somehow always managed to break her tail feathers every which way so she was always wrongfully balanced which made it hard to flight train her. I assumed it was just her personality to want to hop instead of fly, thinking it had to do with her many broken feathers in the past making it too frustrating of an experience.

When I mentioned her behavior to my friend Susan, she looked into toucans more as candidates for freeflight. I had considered buying a new baby toucan to do it with so that maybe that would help ease Fiji into it. Susan wrote me a few weeks later saying that she had talked to a specialist in the toucan area who said it was natural for toucans to prefer to hop and that because of it, they are not the best candidates for freeflight. Merely because, well, they don't really like to fly unless they have to. I wanted to do my own research and make sure since a freeflighted toucan seemed so fun and different. Plus, I really wanted to give this life of freedom to Fiji. I came across one website that told me how flight with toucans is only used to go from tree top to tree top for various fruits and to raid other birds' nests. They seemed like cautious fliers that weren't all that willing to follow the leader all the time. The website also mentioned how toucans are not skilled like parrots or pigeons with their flocking abilities and various manuevers for predator avoidance such as jinking. Admittedly, I still wasn't convinced. I just kept thinking that they would look intimidating enough to other birds and predators that they would be safe, right? Wrong.

I then came across another website with even more information on toucan flight. "Naturalists have long puzzled over the significance of the toucan's large bill. Originally, observers suggested that the bill was a weapon used to defend the nest cavity. This is not so; when toucans sense danger, they come out of the cavity entrance in a hurry, threatening the enemy only out in the open, if at all. Instead, a long bill enables these rather heavy birds to pluck berries from the tips of branches without leaving a stable perch. A thin, dark-colored bill would, however, be just as useful for this purpose. Possibly the toucan's bill plays a role in pair formation and in the social life of the group. According to E. Thomas Gilliard, it acts as a signal. However, toucans can also use their bills to threaten those birds whose nests they plunder. Tyrant flycatchers and even small raptors are frightened by the giant bill, which is even more effective because of its lively colors, and they fly about helplessly while the toucans devour their young or eggs. Other birds will attack a toucan only while it is in flight, because it is then unable to defend itself with its bill." Basically, toucans are scary to these large predator birds but are made to be very vulnerable and defenseless in the air while in flight making them a bad candidate for freeflight.

Article by Jamieleigh Womach. She has been working with parrots and toucans since the age of 17. She isn’t homeless but is home less than she prefers to be. She travels the world with her husband, daughter, and a flockful of parrots whom she shares the stage with.

1 comment


hi jamie great blog site! i accidentally happened upon it and it’s loaded with great info. i’m from the US but i live in costa rica now. so, as you can imagine, i see plenty of swainson’s toucans and the other toucan family species here in the wild. i see plenty of toucans flying around. sure, as you’ve mentioned, they’re not the most skilled fliers and most often you’ll see them just flying from the top of a tree to a lower portion of a different tree upon which they’ll hop upward to the peak of that tree. but they don’t seem to me to have an aversion to flight. as for using their beak as a weapon, i’ve never seen any evidence of that. their beaks are so lightweight and they lack the beak strength of parrots and macaws, so i think their beaks would be fairly useless in defending themselves from other birds. they’re nest raiders who like to eat the eggs and chicks of other birds, but if they’re caught too close to a nest by the parents they’re chased away and i’ve never seen them try to fight back. when i see swainson’s in the wild, it’s usually a single bird in a tree top calling out with it’s beautiful but somewhat melancholy cry. occasionally i’ll see them in pairs and rarely in small groups, but that’s usually when they’ve found a tree loaded with fruit and they’re eating. though i’ve seen them pick up lizards or large insects to eat, i imagine the largest part of their diet is fruit in the wild. i often see them in guarumo trees (cecropia) because i think they like the little fruits or seed pods from these trees. they absolutely go nuts over ripened cuadrados (a shorter, stubbier, almost rectangular banana family fruit) and papaya de monte (a wild papaya that has a rounder, sweeter fruit than a regular papaya). i love the photo of the sleeping toucan in one of your other posts. i have never seen that! i wonder if they sleep with their red posterior exposed to deter night-time predators. red is usually a warning sign in the rain forest and most predators stay away from bright red animals since they’re often toxic or possibly even venemous in the case of the coral snake. drop me a line to my email address, i’ve got lots of questions for you. i’m not keeping any toucans or parrots at the moment but i’m starting to raise pheasants and other fowl. maybe you guys would like to come down to costa rica sometime. i’ve got a property on the pacific coast that is frequented by scarlet macaws and one on the caribbean slope where i’ve seen and heard the rare green macaw on several occasions. and i’ve got plenty of toucans and aracaris everywhere. i even have a small property up in the mountains outside of the central valley and about this time of year i start to see the emerald green toucanets nesting in the cavities of a large dead tree there. pura vida! mike


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