June 2002

William A. Horsfield

They're all beautiful. Some are truly spectacular. They're active and intelligent and must surely be acknowledged by us humans as pure eye-candy. They hail from the rainforests of Mexico and Central America through to the Northern parts of South America. They are the 35 species that make up the Toucan family.

Over the years there have been numerous imports of various Toucans, Toucanets and Aracaris into South Africa, yet rarely have they ever been bred. In fact seldomly have they survived longer than 5 years and probably never have any died from natural causes and old age. Toucans should live 15-20 years and the record is 26 years. Why is this? What are we doing so horribly wrong?

Iron storage disease
Unique among species including Birds of Paradise, Mynahs, Hornbills and Lories, the Toucans share the problem of iron retention or hemochromatosis. Commonly referred to as Iron Storage Disease, it is simply put, the seemingly efficient ability of these birds to absorb dietary iron and store it in tissues, particularly the liver. The liver becomes enlarged and damaged and the bird eventually dies. It is not known exactly why this happens but it may be quite simply that the wild diet contains little iron.

For this reason all captive Toucans should be fed on LOW IRON diets. What exactly is low iron? It is now recognized that per definition in this instance it is any diet that includes less than 150mg/kg or less than 150ppm (parts per million). Many diets are marketed for Toucans and Mynahs that are labeled as having NO ADDED IRON but this is usually a marketing ploy. This simply means that no iron has been added to the ingredients however these may well already contain undesirable levels of the mineral and will adversely affect the health of your birds.

Tea for the Toucan
One theory is that in their natural habitat Toucans drink from richly coloured streams and pools of water where there are high levels of tannins from decaying leaves, bark and other vegetable matter. The tannins help bind the iron found in the birds diet. In captivity this thinking can be put into practice by providing tea for the toucans to drink. The tannins in the tea will act much like those found in the water in the wild. Many successful breeders of Toucans now use tea in all water sources for a period of one month and then use plain water for one month and continue this alternating cycle. Due to the high moisture content of the fruit portion of their diet, Toucans do not drink much. They love to bathe and a large water bowl is utilized for this purpose.

In the wild toucans are largely frugivorous, showing a preference for dry, fibrous fruits like the Ficus berries. They are also semi-predatory and use their powerful, serrated bills to eat birds, reptiles and amphibians if the opportunity presents itself.

Toucans are maintained successfully on the following diet in captivity.
48% Low iron toucan pellets
50% diced fruits
2% Low iron Hill's Science Dog pellets
In South Africa there are Low Iron Toucan Pellets available from Nutribird agents. I will also be importing the acclaimed Harrison's Low Iron organic diets from the USA and should have these available soon.

Hill's Canine Science diets are available from veterinarians and each toucan should receive six pellets per day pre-soaked in water or tea. NO ordinary dog food must be fed even if the toucans seem to relish it. The iron content will eventually kill them.

In humans it is thought that acidic foods can facilitate iron absorption by lowering stomach ph. Citrus, strawberries, pineapples and tomatoes are therefore also best avoided.

The selection of fruits in the diced fruit portion would typically include apples, papaya, banana and grapes.

Wild Ficus berries are a favourite food source and contain natural mineral inhibitors. I also feed my toucans a small quantity of frozen blueberries, cranberries, blackberries and gooseberries which Pick 'n Pay stores stock.

No additives in the form of vitamin or mineral supplements should ever be fed to toucans.

If housed and fed correctly Toucans should not prove difficult to breed. There are now a number of facilities in the USA and elsewhere that are breeding them well and South African keepers need to get with the programme. Having read the sections on iron storage and diet, are you one of those aviculturists that are condemning your toucans to death? Bearing in mind that hemochromatosis is largely an irreversible and untreatable condition, it follows that purchasing Toucans of unknown captive history is a gamble. Having said that, by immediately placing birds onto the correct regime you could well achieve success in breeding if the degree of neglect has not been too chronic.

By comparison to most parrots Toucans will ideally need more spacious, planted aviaries to breed successfully. Certainly to parent-raise chicks this will be the case. Smaller rhamphas-tids (toucanets and aracaris) may be kept in carefully mixed aviaries with robust birds of smaller or preferably larger size but companions must be carefully monitored in case of persecution. Larger rhamphastids like Tocos and Keel-billed should always be kept in pairs unless being housed with very large species who they will still invariably dominate.

During the breeding season the males may drive the females quite seriously and this is where planted aviaries will protect lady toucan and offer places to hide from an over-amorous mate. Surgical sexing or DNA is required as few are sexually dimorphic. Males tend to have longer narrower bills however and females shorter broader ones.

They may also become aggressive towards the keeper and confrontation should be avoided where possible as they may injure themselves in a torpedo style attack.
Interestingly the tongue of the Toucan is a very thin organ that appears to be able to regenerate if injured. This figures as they use it extensively in maneuvering food objects held in the beak and also to wipe the beak and so it must surely be prone to wear and tear.

Toucans are exceptionally agile and fast and can catch a fallen piece of food before it reaches the ground. Individuals used in bird shows around the world are easily taught to catch objects tossed by trainers.

Hollowed out natural logs will be preferred and should be positioned at an angle in the privacy of the sheltered portion of the aviary. This enables the birds to enter the nest more carefully without having to jump onto the nesting chamber. Larger species require a nest approx. 30cm wide x 100cm long with an opening of 10-13 cm's. There must be enough space for the larger species to sit on top of the nesting log which they enjoy doing.
By providing a mixture of clean wet builders-sand, wood shavings and clean sphagnum moss as nesting material the birds are induced to excavate the nesting chamber and this further stimulates breeding condition. The smaller species may roost in the log throughout the year. When roosting the tail is pulled up towards the back exposing the coloured vent which may act as some sort of predatory warning. The chick I raised often pulled her tail so high up that it disappeared under her wings and only her fluffy orange-red vent feathers could be seen. The beak is tucked neatly into the back when relaxed and sleeping.

3-4 white eggs are laid and incubated for a mere 16 days in smaller species and 18 days in the larger. The yolk of the eggs I incubated seemed to have a pinker colour than the orange-coloured yolk of fresh psittacine eggs and development is very fast. The shells also appeared thinner and candling eggs was easier than those of parrots. Incubation temperature is 37.2°C and relative humidity 65%.

If birds are to raise their own chicks they will need a constant supply of live-food in addition to the adult maintenance diet once the youngsters have hatched. Live crickets and even locusts are the preferred items. Crickets are best fed in a cone shaped tube so that they cannot escape and the birds can pick them out with their long bills. However if crickets are fed to handraised chicks they are not digested due to the lack of digestive enzyme coating that the adult birds provide. Chicks are unable to digest the chitin exo-skeleton. Soaked raisins are also provided to be fed to the chicks. They will fledge at 5-6 weeks and wean within 2-3 weeks.

Boobs and all
Last year I was afforded the opportunity of incubating some Keel-Billed Toucan eggs. Friends, Willie and Charmaine Groenewald made the 8 hour journey from Postmasburg to my breeding facility in Assagay near Durban, with their clutch of Toucan eggs carefully nested in a slightly modified portable incubator. The exact type and model of incubator? Erm…..well….Charmaine's ample cleavage to be precise! Having endured the trip without being able to move for fear of crushing her fragile cargo, Charmaine must have been relieved to finally arrive at Amazona farm. Not realizing the eggs were where they were, I gave her a welcoming kiss and hug and thought that I detected a slight look of anxiety on her face but shrugged it off as the effects of a long trip. I was wondering where the eggs were and thought they were perhaps in a box in the car when Charmaine politely suggested we go and "take them out"! With me pretending to look anywhere but in the direction of her frontage I was handed one at a time by Willie, each perfectly wrapped in soft tissue paper…..not two…..not four……not six…….but SEVEN Toucan eggs! Two eggs did get crushed during our greeting hug but miraculously they were 2 of three infertile Toco eggs. Two of the 4 Keel Billed eggs were fertile but only one hatched with the other dying at internal pip. Nevertheless I was delighted even one survived the trek from the Northern Cape and proceeded with the handraising process as described by Martin Vince (Martin is a contributor to Glen Holland's eagerly anticipated, The Encyclopedia of Aviculture, containing 2500 colour slides due to be published this year)

Day 1-7
Initially Kaytee macaw and Papaya & apple puree were fed from a 1cc syringe. ( 80% Kaytee +10% Apple puree + 10% papaya puree) every 90 minutes between 06h00 and midnight. First feed was very watery with subsequent consistency thicker. Toucans do not have a crop and the food can clearly be seen to move down the chick's throat and then suddenly disappear into the upper chest.

Average daily weight gains should be between 10-15% and food intake must be adjusted if less than 6% and greater than 18% for two consecutive days.

The beak must be kept clean and ear-buds can be used for this after each feed. Initially it is broad, flat (in a horizontal plane) and short but it rapidly changes shape to become longer and narrower and flatter (in a vertical plane) The nostrils opened one at a time between 8-10 days at the base of the beak and were obvious as holes that weren't there the day before. They presumably breathe through their mouths till then!! In the adult birds the nostrils are situated behind the base of the beak and are not easily seen unless looking at the bird from directly above and behind.

Day 8 onwards
A transition from the liquid diet to the adult diet can now be made. Very small pieces of sliced pinky mice, soaked Hills Science Canine pellets, toucan pellets and diced fruit can all be fed. All pieces are dipped in warmed Kaytee before being fed and offered from forceps. In my excitement I read the handraising section on Tanagers (which is the same as toucans till day 8) and saw that I needed to feed wax worms (larvae of wax moth) and what ensued can only be described as a manic national search for these nasty little grubs that live their secret lives in beehives. Enormous thanks must go to Shawn Wilkinson, Brian Boswell and Mark Bestel for procuring larvae, to Dr. Kay Pieper in Germany for unearthing the recipe to breed and feed them (figuring I couldn't realistically keep bees in my house unlike Mark) and for Vera Dennison who came to the rescue and translated the whole circus into English! After all that I realized that wax worms were to be fed to Tanagers but Missy Toucan loved them and didn't give a damn.

Nekton MSM calcium/mineral supplement was also added once per day.

The chicks have the most peculiar pads on the legs which have small hooks and the feet are initially very small and out of proportion. The chick does not use the feet but rather perches on the elbows with the feet sticking up in the air and uses the broad tail base as a support. These pads presumably offer a grip to the chick in the nesting chamber where big feet would simply get in the way and they eventually fall off once the chicks have left the nest.

While feeding the little toucan one day, her feathers suddenly puffed up, her wings stretched out and she keeled-over to one side. Her beak opened wide and I thought she was about to die. I pulled the overhead infra-red lamp away from her to get a better look at what was going on and she immediately regained her composure! I pulled the lamp back towards her and she immediately repeated her bizarre posture. Voila! She was loving the heat and how obvious anyway………toucans love to sunbathe and she was instinctively reacting to the sudden warmth.
Toucan aviaries should face North in South Africa so that they can warm themselves in the early morning sun. Healthy birds can tolerate temps as low as 20°F for very short periods of time but can incur frost damage to beaks and feet. In extreme cold they should be offered heating lamps enclosed in a wire frame so that the birds cannot burn themselves.

I hope that this article brings new information to keepers of these beautiful birds in South Africa. Many have been ignorant to their needs yet there is no longer place for this excuse and hopefully the tables will turn for the Toucans and we will start to see more success with the family in general.

I would like to acknowledge with sincere thanks the great work done by Martin Vince of Riverbanks Zoo in the USA without whose valuable information I would have undoubtedly struggled. Also to my friend in New Zealand Glen Holland for putting me in touch with Martin in the first place. Glen's The Encyclopedia of Aviculture is guaranteed to become an avicultural Bible the minute it is published, hopefully later this year.

But without the egg there would have been no baby Toucan and all praise must go to Willie and Charmaine Groenewald for achieving what must certainly be a very proud moment in SA avicultural breeding history. The first successful captive breeding of the Keel-billed Toucan, (Ramphastos vitellinus culminatos) by the gentleman extraordinaire of South African aviculture and his lovely wife. Congratulations!

When the time came to return Missy Toucan to her owners the Groenewald's make the remarkable gesture of giving her to William in view of his extreme efforts in raising her. Provided of course he raises all the others they produce!! Now she is looking for a mate and if anyone knows of a single male, please contact William Horsfield.

World Parrot Trust Cape Parrot Working Group South African Crane Working Group
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