Toucans: Not Just Another Pretty Beak.

Written By: B.D. Butler - Mar• 11•13
Mollie, female Green Aracari, with the Burgundy Head

Mollie, female Green Aracari, with the Burgundy Head

Written By: Jennifer Michelle Phillips

“Wow!  You have toucans?!”  It’s a question (exclamation!) I often get from parrot owners, curious as to what it’s like owning a softbill compared to a parrot.  Although Parrot Earth is about parrots and their care, I thought I’d give everyone a brief glimpse into my life with Toucans and do a little comparing to parrots.

So, what is a softbill?  It’s a somewhat misleading term that seems to imply that a bird has a soft beak.  In fact, it refers to the food the bird eats – fruits, nectar, some insects.  Of course, not all softbills eat soft foods and should more properly be referred to as granivores…but I digress.

There are five types of Toucans and about forty different species.  Three of the five types seen in pet ownership are the Toucans, Toucanets and Aracaris.  I have two Green Aracaris (Pteroglossus viridis) one of the smallest varieties of Aracaris, weighing 110-160 grams and between 12-16 inches long (similar in size to an American Robin or Western Scrub Jay – plus beak).  They have a dark green body that appears black in low light.  Green Aracaris are sexually dimorphic birds, meaning the sexes can be distinguished by appearance.  The males have a black head and the females a burgundy color.  Both have light grey eyes as juveniles that may deepen into a dark red color as sexually mature adults.

Mollie and Victor in the Outdoor Aviary

Mollie and Victor in the Outdoor Aviary

The first obvious physical difference between Parrots and Aracaris is the beak.  An Aracari bill is more lightweight than a parrot bill, can be up to half the size of the body, and has serrated edges (as babies, they have smooth bills that “chip” and serrate over time).  Toucans use their bills to “hammer” rather than crunch.  It serves them well in the wild for excavating nest holes in tree trunks.  The larger Aracaris’ bill grip can be quite powerful (e.g. Collard Aracaris).  I’ve pried a few beaks off my fingers, but it’s nothing compared to the bite of an average sized parrot.  They are also known to “hammer” on objects considered to be a threat – mainly my iPhone!  During the mating season, my male will hammer at my wrists, and sometime bite and twist.

The head and bill of Victor, Green Aracari

The head and bill of Victor, Green Aracari

The diet of captive Toucans is very different from parrots.  Toucans in the wild consume mostly fruit, and the occasional insect or small lizard.  They have been known to raid the nests of other birds to eat the eggs and/or small chicks.   Toucans in captivity are prone to an illness called Hemochromatosis, that is caused by iron accumulating in the liver and other major organs.  It is thus very important to feed Aracaris a low iron diet.  As most parrot owners know, soft fruit does NOT freeze well.  This means constant chopping of fruit (not always in season).  Daily staples are:  Caribbean red papaya (sweeter and keeps better than Hawaiian or Mexican), bananas, blueberries, melon (honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon), cucumber, celery, pears, peaches, grapes, cherries, raspberries, pomegranate seeds, kiwi and apple.  My birds also are fed a low iron pellet mixed in with fruit (I use Mazuri Softbill Low Iron pellets).  Aracaris, generally, are not very picky eaters other than “freshness,” and easily can consume as much as double their body weight per day.

A typical daily Ancari diet

A typical daily Aracari diet

Any diet that consists of soft fruits creates, ahem, very runny, voluminous feces with staining ingredients (blueberry, pomegranate).  Because of the high level of liquid in the feces, cage papers need to be changed daily.  An Aracari message forum is usually full of ideas as to how to cover floors and walls in washable material.  I do a lot of daily cleaning and touch up painting a few times a year.

 Cage size is extremely important for Aracaris.  Rather than a parrot that uses its beak to climb around the cage, Aracaris “hop.”  They are extremely fast-moving – think of a canary or finch.  My Aracaris are unclipped so they are capable of full flight.  Their indoor cage is 8 feet long, 6 feet high and four feet wide.  They are housed together during the day, and in the evening have access to an entire room and a night roost cage (they sleep together in a Happy Hut).  On the weekend and in good weather they stay in the outdoor aviary.

Toucans have a very interesting behavior that’s pretty cool.  They “sunbathe.”  It starts with clenching their feet around a perch, the bill opens wide, and they fall to one side, feathers ruffling.  It doesn’t necessary have to be in the sun, they also perform this behavior in any warm area (I caught my male “sunning” in front of a cooling toaster oven – nearly gave me a heart attack!).

Other questions I am asked are “Do they talk?” or “Are they loud?”  Toucans are not able to mimic human speech.  The larger Toucans have deep, bellowing calls (Tocos), or high-pitched squeaks (Swainson’s).  The Green Aracaris have a series of loud, repetitive calls and soft chattering.  They also have a piercing “alarm call” in the presence of a predator or threat.  However, it’s true that some Green Aracaris are relatively silent other than chattering.  I would equate my Greens to being the same volume and pitch as a Senegal.

I’ve intentionally left out information on temperament.  Some African Greys don’t talk, not all cockatoos like to be cuddled, and every Amazon is not an opera singer.  The same is true for Toucans.  My female loves to bathe – at least twice a day – and my male, not so much.  My male is very cuddly and my female prefers to fight with her reflection in the mirror.  Victor enjoys playing in cabinets and the refrigerator, while Mollie prefers squeezing into small places.  Every bird is an individual with a distinct personality, behavior traits and habits.

 This has been a very brief overview of Green Aracari ownership.  Hopefully, it gives the reader some idea of softbill vs. psittacine ownership.  As with all birds, they require a great deal of care, time and expense.  They are definitely not a “throw some seed in a bowl and go” type of birds.  For those willing to make the commitment, Green Aracaris are a wonderful addition to any flock.

Victor

Victor

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4 Comments

  1. Bab Altman says:

    Did you just start this blog- I love it!!! Your toucans are so amazing!! What a great Mom :))

    • B.D. Butler says:

      Parrot Earth has been around almost two years, Jennifer ( toucan mom) has been an associate writer for about seven months. Glad you enjoy the blog, don’t forget to check out the main site at parrotearth.com !

  2. Lara Joseph says:

    What an informative post, Jennifer. Thank you. This came in very handy and I’m going in search of forums where I can learn how to cover the floor. I have a unique floor, which is heated concrete. The substrate would have to be breathable. Do you have any forums you can refer me to?

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