For four years I learned to be a toucan

For four years, I got a brief glimpse into the life of a toucan, by learning to be one.

Four years ago Tonia and I acquired Pogo, a not-yet-weaned keel-billed toucan. We lost her yesterday in a freak accident, and it’s a bit too close and too painful to include a photo of her here, but she’s in my Facebook photo and she’s the GitHub avatar for the ’saasbook’ organization, so you’ve probably seen her even if you never met her in person. (And if you had met her in person, you’d remember.)

In the four years she lived with us, we quickly learned that in order to steward a toucan you have to learn to be one, since toucans are not domesticated and haven’t developed the ability to tune in to human behaviors. (She announced this the first morning we had her at home by pooping in our bed, a remarkable foreshadowing of much pooping to come and that we’d spend much of our time cleaning up after it. Later that evening, in the TV room, she got nervous about something and tried to fly around, knocking over a glass of red wine.)

So we became toucans. Through trial and error, we learned that passing food back and forth is an important social bonding ritual, at least as important as eating. We learned that you can never turn your back on a toucan: Pogo was “always on”, and when she was awake she was constantly getting into everything, looking for trouble. That’s the nature of the toucan, we learned: she was inquisitive and curious about everything all the time. We learned that although she would wake at the crack of dawn and start croaking loudly, that was just her “contact call” trying to locate the flock; once we figured that out, we started bringing her into the dark bedroom in the morning to sleep in with us. She would take a food pellet and hop into bed to perform the all-important exchange ritual to confirm she was with the right flock, then would doze with us for an hour or two or even three before becoming hyperactive again. We learned that certain footwear sets off aggressive reactions, though we could never fully figure out why or what specific characteristics would trigger it, though it appeared to be related to jealousy. We learned that by making a gesture with our fingers like a beak opening and closing, we got pecked less often because apparently she interpreted the gesture as an overture to social contact rather than as a threat. As she learned her way around the house and we became more confident she wouldn’t do something foolish, we stopped trimming her flight feathers so she could be fully flighted around the house, and she learned many paths through the house and flew around with relish thereafter.

We got used to a repertoire of unusual sounds and behaviors. When we left the house to go to work, or had to put her in her house and got out of view, she would start her “contact call” (croak croak croak croak croak) for quite awhile to see if she could locate us. If we had to intervene to stop an undesirable behavior—move her to a different perch, move her away from food she wasn’t supposed to be eating, or take something away from her that we were afraid she’d swallow—she’d point her beak up in the air and begin a defiant protest (CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW) to express her clear displeasure. If one of us came home from work after the other of us had already gotten home and let her out, she would hear the front door and quickly hop down the few steps to the upper landing of our staircase, and stand there to see who was coming in. (hop hop hop hop THUMP) Sometimes, especially if it was me, her chosen “mate”, she would wait for me to sit on the steps, creating a cavity between my body and the wall; she would then gleefully hop down the rest of the stairs, slap her beak against the floor, and then try to wiggle into the cavity, purring excitedly. (hop hop hop hop slap slap slap RATTLE RATTLE RATTLE) If we came home after dark and she was already asleep on her perch in her house, she’d wake up and briefly ruffle her feathers, often bonking her head on the eave of her house in the process (flap flap flap flap flap BONK flap flap flap) before settling back to sleep, curled up like a football with beak tucked against her back and tail flipped forward over her head.

Once in while, most commonly during the midmorning hours, she’d keep me company while I worked at home, sitting on the back of my chair and preening her feathers. These morning constitutionals didn’t last long and usually devolved into hyperactivity shortly after, but during the hour or two that she was doing her personal grooming, it was fun to have her supervise my work and just sit close by.

And during very special (and rare) moments, when she was in just the right mood, she would allow us to help preen her feathers and rub her beak. She would respond either enthusiastically with the same excited loud rattling, or sometimes, if she was very relaxed with me, with an almost intimate very low rattling. On the latter occasions, she would partially or fully close her eyes while being petted, as I alternated between grooming her feathers, rubbing her beak and rubbing her blue feet. Those episodes were rare but very special, as it was a moment of actual communing with a very different species. Those moments remind us that however different we look, we all ultimately come from the same genetic stock and our primitive cerebrums share a common set of motivations: we all seek comfort and safety, we occupy social roles, we all want food and warmth and contentment and a sense of fulfillment in our social groups. Amazingly, as maddeningly difficult as it often was to learn Pogo’s body language or behavior patterns, it was easy to identify when she felt safe and happy.

We will miss her very much, but her legacy will have been to remind us that although we might never have been ideal toucans, there are things deep in our shared DNA that let us build occasional bridges with the unlikeliest of species. My wife has always known this, but Pogo was a particularly striking example.

Goodbye, bird love. We both knew you wouldn’t last forever but we lost you before your time. Yes, perhaps it wasn’t in your nature to be a “good bird”, but we know you tried as hard as you could, just as we tried as hard as we could to be effective toucan companions and to indulge “the essence of the toucan” whenever possible rather than trying to project our own expectations onto you. Yes, you were pecky and exasperating at least as often as you were gentle and loving, but you were always amusing and you always found some trouble to get into that we’d never thought of—sorting the compost, learning to let yourself out of your house, eating things you really shouldn’t, or requiring us to rethink placement of food and other items in the kitchen to put them out of your reach, lest you attempt to sample them by beaking each one. When we wondered how such a creature could exist—not the fastest flyer, awkward on land, brightly colored, no natural defense mechanisms, impudent and inquisitive to the point of foolhardy—you reminded us that some creatures get to exist simply because there’s room for them in their ecosystem.

The flock is smaller by one today, but it’s still a good flock. We will always remember you and we’re grateful to have had the opportunity, for a few years at least, to try to be part of your unusual world and to try to rise to the challenge of seeing it through your eyes and understanding your behaviors.