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10 Reasons Toucans Make Excellent Pets

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.


Toucans as Pets vs. Parrots

It has become the opinion of some individual hobbyists that toucans make "bad pets", or perhaps shouldn't even be pets. Strangely enough, toucans are often compared to traditionally-owned parrots by these individuals, and in doing so, they conclude that all toucans are somewhat, if not substantially more difficult to care for in comparison. This is an interesting position to take, considering that parrots are considered to be highly complex, socially demanding, and intelligent, as well as being especially long-lived animals, and they are considered to have many issues in captivity [5]. Currently, no research places the cognitive complexity of ramphastides (toucans) within the same tier as psittacines (parrots), nor does there appear to be any theoretical interest.

Toucans are also beautiful to see every day.

Toucans are also beautiful to see every day.

Toucans, however, are very uncommon pets. In fact, it is evident that many people are not even aware that they can be kept as pets or are even legal to own, even though toucans are likely legal in most, if not all the mainland states. This may aid the perception that toucans are "zoological animals" and are not suitable as private household pets.

While there is a lot more known about parrot species and their care due to their extreme popularity, there doesn't seem to be any definitive measure of how "difficult" toucans are to care for in comparison, rather, there may be different expectations from caretakers. The uniqueness of toucans can present to some individuals that these birds have "especially demanding" known care requirements, but this can be attributed to a level of bias simply as a result of fewer people owning them. As with all animals, there is no one "perfect" pet, and people have different opinions and attitudes towards what traits they prefer and tolerate in their pets.

Here is a different approach to toucans as pets and how they can be considered to be excellent companion animals for the right owner, as most suitable species can be.

1. Toucans Have a Simple Diet

There are different toucan species in captivity, but the small number that do well in human care (approximately 20 species [10]) all have the same dietary requirements regardless of their size. Nutritional problems used to be one of the main reasons that captive toucans died prematurely until the discovery that they and other softbills are extremely sensitive to higher iron levels in their food, which can result in a fatal condition called iron storage disease or hemochromatosis [2][17][25]. This is a toxic accumulation of iron in the liver [4][6][8][13][19].

While many sources suggest that toucans are hard to care for because they have special dietary needs, there is a simple resolution. There are two pelleted diets that have been developed specifically for toucans, Mazuri Low Iron Soft Bill [12][16] and Zupreem Low Iron Softbill (the former is highly recommended because it has been extensively tested).

Toucans (except for chicks [7][10][20]) simply are fed this and chopped fruit (except those high in vitamin C) exclusively [7][8][17][19][25] (some owners believe in the benefits of adding tea into their water due to their intake of tannins in the wild [18][19]).

It is never a bad idea to feed a large variety of fruits to your toucan, but there is no evidence that 1-5 different types of fruit per day is inadequate. In fact, some wild toco toucans were found to predominately forage from only 1-6 different fleshy fruits depending on the season [3][14][15][21].

Most owners will choose to feed a base diet of about 3 different fruits, which are generally papaya, blueberries, and some type of melon, but owners can feed whatever is available in their area, as long as it is not citrus, which leads to the uptake of more iron in the liver [6][13]. This is a simple diet in comparison to many parrot diets.

2. Toucans are Quiet (For a Bird)

Perhaps outside of small pet owls, you will be hard-pressed to find a truly quiet bird that can live indoors. Parrots are known for their loud vocalizations, but toucans in comparison do not emit as many jarring screeches and screams. Different species of toucan have different vocalizations; most species produce a croaking sound, clicks, as well as noises that can be described as a purr [22][26]. However, Swaison's toucans are an exception and can have a "whistling yelp" [22]. Toucans also emit a pleasant "rattle-like tromolo" [1].

Toucans can have their moments of being louder when they produce alarm calls and "sirens", however, this is nowhere near the frequency of the loud sounds parrots make that can cause neighbor complaints. Overall, toucans are relatively quiet birds.

3. Superficial Bite Injuries

Due to the nature of the toucan's beak, which is actually very lightweight [17][24] despite its large size, toucans cannot cause significant bite injury [22]. Unlike parrots, which are known for easily snapping metal jewelry and even having the capacity to break fingers with their hook-shaped bills [9], even larger toucans would have to bite at full force to draw a small amount of blood.

Be warned, however, that their bites can still be very unpleasant, as aggressive birds tend to latch on with surprising pressure and shake their heads. Angry aracaris have also been known to fly at faces, which can be an issue if they aim for your eyes.


4. Lifespan

One issue with pet parrots, if they are fed and enriched properly, is the unfortunate fact that many species can potentially easily outlive their owners who are 45 and older. Larger parrots like some macaw species can live up to 50 years or more. This means older owners who adopt their birds young must make plans for their pets in the event of their death. Re-homing can be hard on most birds.

In captivity, comparably-sized toucans have a very forgiving lifespan of around 20-25 years regardless of species [17][22][26]. Therefore, even a 65-year-old owner can adopt a baby toucan and have a reasonable expectation to see their pet's life through most or all of its years.


5. Toucans are Affectionate

The more popular toucan species that are kept as pets can be surprisingly affectionate and inquisitive (when they are hand-raised and socialized [1][4][17][22][24]. This doesn't mean they aren't prone to bouts of aggression during the breeding season, or that individuals don't have certain "quirks" that may result in unexpected nips towards feet and fingers, however, as animals that naturally gravitate towards nesting in tree cavities, these strange birds often love to snuggle with their owners. This is, of course, mostly true with toucans that have been socialized around humans, which is just the same with other birds.

6. Less Bird Dander

Toucans can be considered to have less messy feathers than parrots because they do not have excessive feathery down [22]. This could potentially be an important trait for people who want birds but are sensitive to wafting downy particles.

7. Toucans Are not Destructive

While it is true that toucans, compared to parrots, require much larger cages because they are more active and cannot climb the sides of their enclosure to maximize their space like parrots, a big benefit of owning them is that they do not destroy weak structures. Due to this, smaller toucans (aracaris and toucanettes) can be housed in lightweight flight cages for small birds instead of the heavy metal cages that are required of some parrots that can easily destroy those bars. Zoos will also often house large toucans in spacious aviaries made of a soft mesh [18].

Toucans will not easily destroy your jewelry, however, be sure to keep small objects like earrings away from them because they could be swallowed, which can lead to death [11][17].

8. They Aren't Endangered

People have a tendency to see a beautiful, charismatic bird (or any animal) and think they must be threatened in the wild. The more colorful the animal is, the more endangered they must be. However, no toucan species are facing extirpation in the wild (Appendix I Endangered) [18][26], nor are they threatened by the American pet trade. They do face threats from habitat deforestation [26].

This means if you are looking for a pet that you don't want to feel guilty about owning because you don't want an animal that is currently struggling in the wild, toucans are a good choice. They used to be imported from the wild often due to poor breeding success, but commercial import has been made illegal for CITES species since 1993 due to the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) [23][26]. Breeding success is improving and has been accomplished with around half of the toucan species [10][18][22][26]. Despite all this, toucans have never really been imported in large numbers and are not often kept as pets in the United States [1][23].

9. Droppings Are Easy to Clean

Toucans are actually pretty messy birds, but there are some benefits. Unlike fruit-eating parrots like lorikeets, their droppings do not "squirt" in any direction, but falls neatly beneath them [21]. Their feces are a lot like a mushy version of the fruit that they eat, so it is easy to wipe clean or soak once it dries. Parrot feces, on the other hand, have a "cement-like" quality that can be harder to remove from surfaces once dried. Toucans also do not leave scraps like seed hulls [22]. For birds who live indoors, fruit throwing can be curbed by wrapping a light curtain around the enclosure.

10. They Are Unique

All toucan species are not commonly found in the pet trade [1], so regardless of some of the challenges of owning them, you will be constantly rewarded with a beautifully-colored, unique companion animal that will never cease to entertain with its personality and interesting antics. Toucans have an unmistakable appearance that conjures up tropical jungle imagery and makes their large enclosures and fruit-throwing worth it.

Works Cited

  1. Axelson, Rick. Toucans and Toucanettes - General. Care & Wellness, Pet Services. 2009.
  2. Cubas, Zalmir S. "Toucans: Husbandry and Medicine World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2009." Hemoglobin (g/dL) 16: 14-61.
  3. dos Santos, Alessandra Aparecida, and José Ragusa-Netto. "Toco-toucan (Ramphastos toco) feeding habits at an urban area in Central Brazil." Ornitología Neotropical 24 (2013): 1-13.
  4. Emerald Forest Bird Gardens. Care Information.
  5. Engebretson, M. "The welfare and suitability of parrots as companion animals: a review." ANIMAL WELFARE-POTTERS BAR THEN WHEATHAMPSTEAD- 15.3 (2006): 263.
  6. Hess, Laurie. Axelson, Rick. "Toucans and Toucanettes - Feeding". Care & Wellness, Nutrition, Pet Services
  7. Jennings, Jerry. Toucans & Their Captive Reproduction.
  8. Johnson, Sibylle. Natural and Captive Diet of Toucans / Toucanets and Aracaris.
  9. King, I. C. C., H. Freeman, and J. E. Wokes. "Managing parrot bite injuries to the hand: not just another animal bite." Hand 10.1 (2015): 128-130.
  10. Leger, Judy St, et al. "Toucan hand feeding and nestling growth." Veterinary Clinics: Exotic Animal Practice 15.2 (2012): 183-193.
  11. Máinez, Mireia, et al. "Traumatic (foreign body) pericarditis in a Toco Toucan (Ramphastos Toco)." Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 47.4 (2016): 1097-1100.
  12. Mazuri. Mazuri® ZuLiFe® Soft-Bill Diet for Iron Sensitive Birds.
  13. Otten, Benjamin A., et al. "Mineral content of food items commonly ingested by keel-billed toucans (Ramphastos sulfuratus)." Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery 15.3 (2001): 194-196.
  14. Ragusa-Netto, José. "Abundance and frugivory of the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) in a gallery forest in Brazil's Southern Pantanal." Brazilian Journal of Biology 66.1A (2006): 133-142.
  15. Ragusa-Netto, José. "Toco toucan feeding ecology and local abundance in a habitat mosaic in the Brazilian cerrado." Ornitologia Neotropical 19 (2008): 345-359.
  16. Reynolds M. 2017. Toco Toucan: species fact sheet. Silver Spring (MD): Avian Scientific Advisory Group. [accessed 2020 April 16th]. http://aviansag.org/Fact_Sheets/Piciformes/Toco_Toucan.pdf.
  17. Ritchie, Branson W., Greg J. Harrison, and Linda R. Harrison. Avian medicine: principles and application. HBD International, Incorporated, 1994.
  18. Seibels, B., and M. Vince. "Toucan Husbandry Manual for the AZA Piciformes TAG." Association of Zoos and Aquariums (2001).
  19. Sheppard, Christine, and Ellen Dierenfeld. "Iron storage disease in birds: speculation on etiology and implications for captive husbandry." Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery 16.3 (2002): 192-197.
  20. Silva, Juliana Macedo Magnino, et al. "Development of young toco toucas fed with dry dog food and toucan pellets." Revista Brasileira de Saude e Producao Animal 12.3 (2011): 739-749.
  22. Summers, Amado. Toucan Frequently Asked Questions. Summerbirds.com
  23. Toucans... My Experiences with their Care and Breeding
  24. Worell, Amy B. "Ramphastids." Handbook of Avian Medicine. WB Saunders, 2009. 335-349.
  25. Verschoor, T. "Talking ToucansZooQuaria 90 (2015): 16-17.
  26. Vincent, Mairee. "The Preliminary Studies of Wild Toco Toucans (Ramphastos toco)-a keeper's experience in the field." Ratel 34.3 (2007): 8.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.