Photo by Dave Location: The Dawn Princess, Princess Cruise Lines Twins: Swainson Toucans "Meaka" and "Fiji"
It wasn't always this way with these two toucans...
A lady in Sandpoint, Idaho owned Meaka (left) and she was the same age as Fiji (right) who we got at six months old. Meaka stayed in a pet shop all day and was a very calm and sweet bird. Fiji was a hyper-active, always had to be doing something, type and we introduced them one day upon meeting this lady.
Meaka merely sat there on the lady's arm not caring much about Fiji. Fiji was interested but wasn't sure what to do so she copied Meaka and sat, too. One day, unexpectedly and months later, the lady called us to say she was in a bad situation and needed to get rid of Meaka. She wasn't interested in selling her for profit, but could no longer care for her and needed to at least get back what she paid for her. She had other offers but wanted to contact us first to see if we would take her because she knew we knew how to properly take care of a toucan (they have very strict needs, much more strict than a parrot in my opinion.)
We couldn't let Meaka go to an unfit home so we took her in. Little did we know, our only child at the time (Fiji) would not be so welcoming. They picked fights with one another constantly and I was always getting in the middle having to break things up. We knew we couldn't have them together in the same room which made it hard. Fiji would get angry with me if I gave Meaka any attention and it was just becoming too much - we knew we had to do something for these birds.
Out on a four month long cruise ship job we took the girls with us. It was out there that we began the socialization process with them both. We filmed the entire thing to document it and their reactions to one another and caught some great footage we never did anything with (still, even).
Here's how we did it: First, we needed two people. Myself and Dave worked together so there was one person for each bird. The camera was on a tripod so not to miss anything. After performing on stage at night, everyone cleared out and the doors would be locked. We would take the birds in there and use the stage as our socializing platform.
I held one bird, Dave had the other and we held them as far apart as their body language told us they needed before becoming too uncomfortable. We then grabbed two chairs and put them in place, setting the birds to perch on the top of the chairs.
Once the birds relaxed, we clicked for Fiji and whistled for Meaka and gave them blueberries. This was our process to clicker train them (but they needed different cues, so a clicker was for one bird and the whistle for the other). More on clicker conditioning. We basically rewarded them for being calm which was the behavior we wanted. We just wanted them to be okay being together in a room at a specific distance apart. From here, we worked on moving the chairs closer at the birds' pace. We had a few fly offs and it was mainly Fiji who did the flying - luckily, she is recall trained so she came flying (or hopping) back and we never had to go chase her. Because both of these birds are fully flighted, they had the option to fight or use flight.
We worked on this training process for two solid weeks every single night until we could successfully have our two toucans sitting/perching next to one another happily, eating berries together. In the picture above they are eating grapes but for training we use blue berries because they are healthier (grapes contain some iron) and smaller so we could have more progress with the birds before they were completely stuffed. Hopefully someday we will do something with the training process footage because it showed it all - the fly offs, the initiations, the body language you need to recognize and the reward process and success of the training itself. It's one thing to read about it, but it's another to see it from start to finish!
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.