Information on Toucans as Pets (or Lack Thereof)

Photo by Jamieleigh Location: Kent, WA With: Toco Toucan "Rocko"

It has been 9+ months since we lost our Swainson Toucan, Fiji, and with our new Toco Toucan Rocko, I realized how much research I did with having Fiji and just how different having a toucan as a pet is from having a pet parrot. I had done so much extensive research on toucans online and talking to trainers I knew that worked in animal parks and so forth. Hoping for as much information as possible but finding rarely any at all. The most I found was from zoos, and articles written about how little information there is on them, and how they don’t do that well in captivity breeding or otherwise. Tons of articles I had read said how when people knew even less about them they were fed monkey chow, or dog food and would die in a couple years from storing all the iron. Because there’s so little info out there on them, I feel it’s really important for those of us who are lucky enough to have toucans, to share ALL that we learn about them with everyone so they can live longer in captivity, and healthier, and of course, happier. Since getting Rocko some people have come out of the wood work to speak with me about how they too have toucans, and share and pass around information. One of which was Chrissann Nickel who lives in the British Virgin Islands with her 3 rescued adult toco toucans Paco, Pepe and Paz. How cool is that?

Photo provided by Chrissann

I decided to interview her.

Toucan owners are constantly learning from one another what to feed and how to best care for these delicate birds. Sharing information is vital in making it better and better for them in captivity.

How did you come to be interested in toucans and acquire your current 3 toucans? I have never owned a bird prior to the toucans, but have always been a lover of all animals from bunnies, to dogs, cats, lizards – you name it. My list of dream pets is always growing! However, until recently, birds were never on my radar – simply for the fact that I had never spent much time with any. Years ago, my boyfriend David used to breed and raise macaws. It was his stories about their intelligence and charming personalities that initially piqued my interest. Then, a couple years ago on our vacation in Columbia, I met my first toucan. Sitting in a beautiful restaurant’s tropical atrium, a Keel-Billed toucan named Clarita swooped down from the trees, landed on our table, and proceeded to steal the mint straight out of my mojito! I was hooked. Since then, it’s been a dream of mine to own a toucan, albeit a fanciful one. I figured it would be unlikely that I would ever own a toucan, let alone so soon, let alone three! But fate stepped in this past June and presented us with the opportunity to adopt our three toucans, who were already in our part of the world and in need of a new home – one we are beyond delighted to provide.

What have been your biggest sources for information on how to properly care for your toucans?  I have had difficulty finding great, detailed information out there about the care for Toco toucans – I realize they are not a common pet. I couldn’t find one book that was specifically published relating to them. Thank goodness for the internet! While you certainly have to double-check all sources before qualifying anything as fact, I found that by far, the most useful and seemingly reliable source is the Toucan Husbandry Manual done for the AZA, available online at http://www.nashvillezoo.org/piciformes/toucan_husbandry.htm . My other two favorite resources are Emerald Forest Bird Gardens and http://softbillsforsale.com/articles/toucans.asp.

Photo provided by Chrissann

Would you say it's hard to own a toucan as a pet? Well, I don’t want to use the word “hard” because to me, it makes it sound like a negative experience – and our toucans are such a gift in my life. But I would say it’s definitely not for everyone. They are incredibly charming and fun to work with but I think the reason you mostly only see them at zoos and not as pets is because of the time and effort it takes to properly care for them. First off, they require much more space than your average pet bird. They are very high-energy and need room to hop and flit about their enclosure – this space requirement alone makes it prohibitive for most people to keep them indoors. We’re lucky to live in a year-round tropical climate, so our birds live outdoors 24/7 in large, protected cages. The other main thing is the time – Tocos require A LOT of your time on a daily basis. On average, we spend about 3-4 hours each day directly attending to the three toucan’s needs from cage cleaning, training, food preparation, and enrichment. This time doesn’t include any additional periods we spend just “hanging out” with them. I believe that without a true commitment of time to your toucan, they would become extremely bored and no doubt begin to exhibit behavioral problems.

What has each toucan you have taught you?  I love that you asked about them as individuals, rather than as a whole group, because they are very different and my interactions with each of them are separate experiences. Paz is the one who has bonded with me most so far. From her, I learned to work on creating a trusting relationship first and the rest will all fall into place. She used to attack me whenever I touched her food or toys. After listening to one of Chet’s (Bird Tricks) training sessions on “Why Birds Bite”, I really came to understand that it was simply fear and mistrust disguised as aggression. So I stopped forcing myself on her and allowed her to come to me by just hanging out in her cage, Jane Goodall-style. Now, she always wants to be close to me and has not been aggressive towards me since. From Paco, I learned to reward baby steps. When he first arrived, he wouldn’t come down to us – he would just stay at the very top perch in his cage, out of our reach. But working daily on the “down” command and rewarding small improvements worked great. Now, whenever we come in the cage, he hops right down to his training perch, eager to interact. From Pepe, I learned that you need to find the right reward. Pepe still doesn’t step-up consistently but the couple of times he has, was when he REALLY wanted a new toy we had. So far, he won’t do it for just treats, so we realize we need to try to find irresistibly interesting items to make it hard for him to resist stepping-up.

Photo provided by Chrissann

Have you trained your toucans to do any behaviors on cue, if so, what ones and were they fast learners?  Yes, I have had some successes in training already. When we first got them, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do trick training, but I did want to get them to step-up and want to be near me. After doing some research, I came across the Bird Tricks training program and decided to buy it to give it a shot. I am so happy I did – it has been an incredible resource in helping me understand my birds. Now I really understand the importance of trick training for both their mental stimulation, as well as our relationship. The birds know “down” and “perch” (to move about their cage – we started with your target training, now we just point) – essentials for me. Now we continue to work on  “spin”, “yes”, “no”, “kiss”, and “tell me a secret”. I also just started a game to teach them to “find the treat” by choosing which hand has the treat in it. With Paz, I have got her to step-up consistently and she is starting to accept some touching. We do at least three training sessions per day. In regards to if they are fast learners, I would say that patience has been huge in their training and not expecting quick results. They’re very smart, but “twitchy” as you say. From what I can tell from all of yours/Bird Tricks videos, it seems easier (to a degree) to conduct your training sessions with macaws, simply for the fact that they tend to stay put on their training perch. We have to keep our training sessions quite short and interesting – the second the toucans become bored or nervous – they just quickly hop away. Getting them to recognize it as a positive time has really worked wonders to hold their interest in training sessions.

Photo provided by Chrissann

What would you tell someone interested in owning a toucan as a pet? I would say that toucans (and specifically Tocos, since that’s my only experience) would be a challenging pet for most people. I understand that their fun personalities and beautiful coloring is a huge appeal for many, but I would say, before you consider owning a Toco – be extremely honest with yourself. Really consider how much time you have to devote to a pet. Toco toucans require a huge commitment from you and if you’re someone who is away all day at work or has a busy schedule already – it’s safe to say a toucan may not right for you. I’m certain that with as sociable as the Tocos are, they would not thrive being left alone for long stretches of time. Since adopting our three toucans, our life and daily schedules have changed enormously. This year, we were not able to take our normal 4 week vacation that we look forward to each fall due to the fact that we could not find a suitable person to watch our birds. Because of the daily attention they require, we understand that it takes a real commitment on someone else’s part to watch over them. Since we couldn’t find someone capable of making that commitment , this year we made the choice to skip our trip because we are not willing to sacrifice their needs for anything else.

What do you wish you knew about toucans today? The list of what I wish I knew increases as each day passes! I think when anyone becomes close to an animal (whether wild or domesticated), your interest in that species naturally increases tenfold. I have so many questions that I can’t seem to find answers to. From general stuff like their behaviors in the wild to more health-related questions about the exact amounts they should really be eating each day. I also have a lot of questions that I will never know the answers to about their history such as where did they come from, how did their beaks get damaged, etc.

Photo provided by Chrissann

Where did you find most of your information on how to care for them, was the internet helpful or did it point you in the wrong direction? Actually, the internet was extremely helpful. There don’t seem to be any books out there that I can find dedicated to raising and caring for Toco toucans. I understand that they are not a common pet. The best information I found was that published online by zoos and bird institutions, particularly the AZA Toucan Husbandry Manual (link above) and Emerald Forest Bird Gardens. There is of course a lot of information out there that is basic and/or misleading, but if you spend the time, you can find very useful, credible information on the internet.

What is the most important aspect of caring for toucans in your opinion?  Well, obviously the right diet is key to their health and longevity, but beyond that, I would have to say enrichment. They are extremely curious and, I believe, incredibly intelligent animals that thrive on constant stimulation.  We have certainly had to cultivate our creativity in coming up with new and intriguing toys for them – they tend to get bored with one after a couple days. We also work to create a dynamic environment outside their cage by adding new things surrounding their enclosure for them to figure out – stone lawn animals, sprinklers, music, and....tourists...haha. Yes, one of our best environment enrichment tools are the people who come to stare curiously at the toucans, while the toucans stare curiously right back at them! I have also created a game called “The Bag of Wonder” that works as both enrichment and relationship-building for us – stay tuned for an upcoming blog post for more details. ;)

Photo provided by Chrissann

Do you have any goals you want to achieve with Paco, Pepe and Paz?  Absolutely! It is so important to me to be able to provide the best life possible for them and I know there are many more ways we can improve on what we’re doing in the future. A big part of that for me is out-of-cage time. It has never been my desire for these birds to live 100% in their cages – I would love for them to be able to enjoy being out and about on our little island, enjoying the outdoors,  and even coming inside our house to spend more time with us. An exciting first step for us now is beginning to take Paz out of the cage each day to acclimate her to her new environment. They are all still a ways off from that end goal, but each day, the time we spend in training, socializing, and building our relationship with them is one step closer. For more information on Chrissann's journey with her toco toucans, check out her blog Adventures in Toucanland or email her directly at toucanlady@adventuresintoucanland.com.

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.

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