T he word. brings forth visions of gorgeous, exotic, long beaked beauties of Mexico, Central and South America.
The word also brings forth a vision of a family of birds that has been vanishing from American Aviculture.
I have always been enthralled, fascinated, at times literally obsessed with toucans, and have spent much time, money, and effort in studying them, searching for them, and yes, successfully breeding them! I have dealt with the highs and lows of "Toucanitus," which can be just as afflicting as "parrot fever." And I have dealt with many obstacles, including, "the big H" - Hemochromatosis, Iron Storage Disease. (referred to later in this article as "Hemo").
If in today's Avian Marketplace, you wake up one morning and decide to get into breeding most any species of larger psittacines, well, today's your day, as the bird world abounds with such things as "selling out," "changing directions," "proven pair dispersal," etc., etc. This is no longer so in the world of toucans. Read on my dear future Ramphastid lover!
For many years, until 1993, with the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation act that ended commercial import of CITES listed species, many species of toucans were imported. Although never in the numbers of many psittacine species, they were still widely and cheaply available. Tacos, Red Bills, Channel
Bills, were all very common in the $300 - 800 range in the 1980s. Due to a seemingly never ending supply, and the losses to Hemo, (although many times back then we didn't know why they all kept dying) hardly anyone bothered to attempt at breeding toucans. Those of us who have read the AFA Watchhird over the years will know that the main breeder, and supplier of information on toucans over the last 20 years, has been AFA's first president, Jerry Jennings, of Emerald Forest Bird Gardens in California. Jerry was keeping and breeding toucans long ago when most of us were still rubbing our hands with glee over the thought of getting rich in all our parrots, and wondering why he would set up dozens of pairs of birds that dropped like flies and had no market!
Well, things are changed now, the psittacine market has crashed (compared to the 80s heyday) and toucans are in demand, and the price is skyrocketing. I recently paid for some Toco pairs prices that were in the Hyacinth range! Yes, friends, toucans are no longer a "poor mans bird." (Ever try telling a girlfriend you just dumped lOOK into a few pairs of toucans? First rule in "Toucan 101," - don't tell, better to lie and say you lost the money in Enron stock.)
As a side note, as of this writing, and for the last several years, two non CITES species are still being imported and are readily available, at a reasonable price, Swainson's Toucans, and Collared Aracaris. This will more than likely change at some time in the future.
For years, I kept my toucans in outdoor flights, and living in a temperate area, had to catch them up every fall, and keep them caged up all winter. This was stressful on the birds, and keeping multiple pairs of toucans in cages indoors is a messy, time consuming affair! Toucans can handle fairly low temperatures if they have protection from wind, and rain. But if you are in an area that gets under freezing temperatures at night consistently, without an attached heated shelter, you probably will have to move them inside in the winter.
For quite some time I contemplated another option, and three years ago after extensive research, I built my toucans a passive solar aviary, that allows them to stay in their flights year-round. Living in northern New Mexico, which is a "hotbed" in passive solar construction, I studied many different concepts.
The structure my birds live in, is the brain child of Taos New
Mexico Architect, Michael Reynolds, and is called an "earthship." This is a structure with three-foot-thick rammed earth walls, south facing glass glazing, and super insulated roof. The whole building is buried six feet into the earth, with a rear berm. The combination of thermal mass, solar gain, and super insulated roof make a structure that maintains a tropical-like temperature year round. I have seen outside temperatures of 10 below zero in the winter, and 105 in the summer, and it still is usually in the 70 - 80 degree range inside, year round. This is without any fans, heaters, air conditioners - in fact, this aviary is completely off the power grid, and generates its own warmth, and cooling, using the principles of solar energy, and thermal mass. This allows me to have plenty of tropical foliage inside, to provide an environment my toucans love. Plus, I am actually able to grow some fruit for them, in a 75' long
greenhouse on the South side of the building.
One thing that is very important when building such an aviary, is having access to constant fresh air. I have visited zoo conservatory type aviaries in the winter that are stuffy, smelly, musty places. My aviary is designed with a natural venting system, using front windows that are low to the ground, and operable skylights in the rear of each room. Even in the coldest of weather, this allows me to always have a flow of fresh air, over each flight. The whole massive structure of this aviary acts like a "battery," and even if I were to open all windows wide open in the middle of a winter night, as soon as I closed up the structure, It would be back into warm temperatures shortly.
In such a year-round warm environment, I have to be very diligent in keeping aviaries cleaned. If I go more than 10 days without cleaning each flight, I will get literally
swamped with flies. Try as I might, there seems to always be one stray fly inside that can willingly "repopulate" his species! Toucans have a very large soft dropping which is perfect for breeding flies. I must also keep the area around the food bowls clean, to keep bugs to a minimum, which can be host to several different internal parasites.
I do not use any chemicals inside, preferring to constantly dust a layer of Diatomaceous Earth to help control all insects. All the waste from the flights is composted and used to fertilize the plants inside. All water from the bowls is swished out each day, and used on the plants. All aviaries are constructed with the birds well being in mind. If birds are comfortable in their surroundings, they are much more likely to breed. In all species of birds, it always seems the aviculturists that know their birds, name them, and offer more of a friendly, loving atmosphere do much better than those who have rows and rows of sterile flights with numbers on them. Breeding toucans, to me, is much more of an art than a science. Although I do have plans on increasing my flock size, I feel when you have to start hiring employees to do most or all the work, your production level, and the birds comfort level will both drop.
The first aviary that I have built using these methods has worked out well, and the birds are are reproducing well, and I have several more similar structures planned in future years.
My initial experiments in my new aviary has my toucans in much smaller flights than most people use. My toucans are currently kept in flights approximately 61 wide, 7' high, and 12' long. My future buildings will allow larger flights.
Being very active birds, I would never advocate attempting to breed toucans in typical commercial Parrot breeder, "stack 'em deep, sell em cheap, chicken ranch type" standing cages, but toucans don't require a 25' flight for success.