Living with a keel-billed toucan

(Written with my then partner, Tonia Reinys Fox)

We got Pogo, our keel-bill, from Jerry at EFBG when she was about six weeks old. (We had chosen a unisex name, and although we haven’t had her sexed by blood sample, we’re pretty sure from her size and behaviors that she’s a hen.) She’s now two and a half, and we’ve hand-raised her very attentively. Tonia had birds as a child, but primarily domesticated species like parakeets and lovebirds; I had never had birds. Given that background, here’s our view of being toucan stewards (I don’t say “owners” because the way I see it we have the privilege of living with such an interesting creature, if an occasionally exasperating one).

I should point out that Tonia’s sister has an aracari who has a completely different personality—in short, the aracaris seem more snuggly, less amusing, less actively curious, less demanding and generally lower maintenance. Our comments apply to Pogo, and I’ve been told that similar comments would apply to Swainsons’ and toco toucans as well, but your mileage may vary.

As pets, big toucans are highly amusing, curious, energetic, playful, and sociable. Low-maintenance, they’re not. Don’t expect to put them in a cage and forget about them—they’ll be unhappy, and you’ll miss out.

Toucans are not a domesticated species; unlike dogs, they have not evolved the ability to learn how to behave around humans. Consequently, to be a successful toucan steward, it is you who must learn to behave around a toucan. Pogo clearly has expectations of how we will respond to certain behaviors and calls. If we fail to respond as she expects, she may get antsy and start croaking more urgently; other times, depending on the nature of the violation, we get pecked. Even the most vigorous pecks won’t send you to the hospital as they might with a parrot, but they don’t tickle either. (There’s a whole repertoire of pecks from friendly to hostile, ranging from “pay attention to me” to “you didn’t do what I expect” to “go away, I need my space now” to “Alert! Alert! Attack!”) Her tolerance for mistakes is lower at times when she is grumpy, which is generally just after waking up in the morning (she needs a few minutes to get going) and during the nesting season.

Learning toucan body language and customs is largely a matter of trial and error, and despite the occasional peck, is interesting and fun. It’s very satisfying when you finally understand what is intended by a particular behavior because your response gets rewarded by purring, cuddling, or other social behaviors that clearly indicate a happy bird. However, what is required is dedication to the task and some concentration, since many behaviors are non-obvious. For example, Pogo likes being hand-fed, but we noticed early on that sometimes she would accept a piece of food in the tip of her beak but then just sit there holding onto it rather than swallowing it. By trial and error, I figured out she was waiting for one of us to take it back—passing food back and forth is a social bonding behavior among toucans. Now we know to expect it, and she purrs contentedly when we acknowledge her desire to re-bond with her flock members. Understanding body language (and the different kinds of croaks) is made easier by the fact that she has a definite daily routine: active in the morning, social during the day (wanting to be near the other flock members but not necessarily needing constant interaction), and subdued and wanting company and petting in the evening right before bed. In any case, learning how to be a proper toucan is a task that requires conscious effort—it won’t “just happen” by itself, and during the day you may find a toucan interrupting your tasks to demand your attention. For those among you who are nerds like me, I have come to think of her as a “finite-state toucan”—given her current mood and particular actions/croaks, I can usually tell what’s coming next and how I’m expected to respond.

(One exception: Pogo frequently is riled up by bare feet and will run after and attack them. This happens to both of us, even when she is otherwise in a great mood, and we’re not sure why. We assume the image of exposed moving feet triggers something primal—maybe she thinks it’s a scuttling rodent that needs to be attacked. At any rate, we wear slippers or socks around the house, even when stepping out of the shower, to avoid provoking her.)

Pogo is curious about everything. She insists on beaking any new object in her environment, if only to make sure it’s not edible or interesting to play with. Sometimes she will steal an object—for example, if we’re working and set down the pen, she will hop away with it in her beak—and we will have to barter another object to get it back. (It took a couple of tries to learn the barter trick; simply taking back the stolen object was immediately punished as a violation of toucan protocol.) We keep a bunch of small toys around for her to play with, but toucans will eat ANYTHING they can swallow (Pogo swallowed a rubberband that we had used to hang one of her toys inside her cage), so we have had to toucan-proof our house and be careful of the toys: nothing smaller than a ping-pong ball, nothing with parts that can break off, nothing with lead paint or other finishes that can chip off, nothing with sharp edges or points, etc. If you think about baby-proofing, it’s about the same.

The upside of curiosity is that Pogo loves playing with toys. There are various puzzles one can buy that are designed to exercise birds’ problem solving skills (usually involving extracting food from an enclosure of some kind) and we’ve devised some of our own from household materials. For example, I noticed that Pogo enjoyed using her beak to explore the pockets of a jacket hanging on a doorknob, so Tonia’s mom constructed a fabric-and-mortarboard toy we call “Pogo’s Pockets” to indulge this behavior. We also play catch with small rubber balls, and she has a variety of other beak-friendly toys like wine corks, small stuffed animals, squeaky toys, etc.

Pogo is an indoor toucan. She has always had the run of the house as long as someone was home, but for a while we trimmed back her primary flight feathers so that she could not sustain lift over long distances. As she’s become a better and more controlled flier, and more familiar with the layout of our house, we decided to let her become full flighted. She loves flying around and has various favorite perches around the house, but we have to be careful to keep windows and doors closed—she doesn’t show specific interest in leaving, but she is curious about new environments and once or twice flew out the front door essentially by accident. We have also had to do another round of toucan-proofing—since she can now access even high tables and shelves that were previously inaccessible to her, everything that’s not toucan-safe has to go in drawers or cabinets.

Pogo’s cage (we call it her house, as Tonia can practically stand up in it) has a footprint about 5’x3’ with a peaked roof about 6’ tall. If at least one of us is home, day or night, its doors are open and she can come and go as she pleases. She goes in voluntarily to eat snacks, play with toys, take a bath in her water dish, or just mellow out and have some personal space—we’ve mounted some thick branches so that she can enjoy darkness and privacy at the top of her house under the opaque roof, where she likes to sleep. At night she hops up the stairs and puts herself to bed when she’s tired. In the morning, we bring a small portable perch into our bedroom and set it on the night table, and she sleeps in with us. (When she wakes up, she starts immediately calling for the flock, but once she’s in the bedroom and sees we’re sleeping there, she becomes comfortable and quiets down, and sometimes even dozes off with us.) When nobody else is home, we usually do close the doors to her house, primarily for her own safety so she doesn’t get into trouble when we’re not looking.

Toucans make a mess. Their transit time (digestion) is very quick—sometimes less than an hour from eating to pooping—and they poop a great many times per day. The good news is that this makes them more robust to digestive-system disorders, but the bad news is there will be poop everywhere. If you have easy-to-clean hardwood or smooth floors, it’s easy because the poops are soft and watery; but if you have carpets, especially natural-fiber ones that tend to stain, you should Scotchgard them, replace them with carpets the color of toucan poop, or consign yourself to cleaning up a lot and having stained carpets. Pogo has become pretty well trained so about 80% of her pooping is done in “approved” places where there’s newspapers or other lining, but the remaining 20% is a constant chore; this is a fact of life with toucans and not something you can work around. We’ve heard of people training aracaris to poop only in approved places, but that ideal remains elusive.

One other thing to consider is access to a good vet. Most vets don’t have much specialized knowledge about exotic birds. We are fortunate to live near Oakley, CA, where there’s an avian vet practice that sees a lot of softbills and one of whose principal vets is a leading authority on toucan physiology. If something should go wrong, who you gonna call? Since many acute mishaps (swallowing something bad, e.g.) allow for a very short treatment window, it’s worth thinking about this up front.