By Dr. Becker
A toucan is a tropical bird native to Central and South America, so when one was spotted flying in the Southern California town of Alpine in August 2016, it created quite the buzz.
Community Facebook posts showed photos of the colorful bird along with locations of sightings, along with speculation about where the bird came from and whether it should be caught. The bird was identified as a keel-billed toucan, a species known for its large, vibrantly colored bill and plumage.
The birds live in areas ranging from southern Mexico to Venezuela and Colombia. Although they can fly, they have heavy wings that make travelling long distances difficult (the birds are known as poor flyers and instead often get around by hopping from branch to branch).1
In other words, it's very unlikely that the toucan spotted in California is a wild variety but rather likely came from the exotic bird pet trade.
Toucans Are Popular in the Pet Trade
Toucans are striking birds with their larger-than-life bills. They're also notably intelligent, and the combination has made them attractive in the exotic bird pet trade.
Such birds used to be caught in the wild and brought into the U.S. to be sold as pets, but legislation passed in the late 1980s has helped to discourage this unethical practice.
Unfortunately, some exploitative exotic bird breeding programs have increased as a result, with many unscrupulous breeders simply trying to make money without regard for the birds' welfare.
A keel-billed toucan may sell for $5,000 to $7,000, which is why it's highly unusual that no one came forward to claim ownership of the toucan sighted in Alpine. Unfortunately, a captive-bred and raised toucan would likely not be able to survive long in the wild, and it's unclear what ultimately happened to the Alpine bird.
Some owners do end up abandoning their exotic birds by releasing them outside once they realize such birds require an extensive commitment — time-wise and financially — to be cared for properly.
If not given the proper attention and social interaction, these intelligent beings may develop psychological problems leading to self-mutilation, excessive vocalization, aggression and feather plucking.
The birds are naturally messy and noisy, leading to more abandonments and relinquishments to rescue organizations.
Do Exotic Birds Make Good Pets?
Birds are intelligent creatures who form strong bonds with their owners. They are also very demanding pets who require careful attention to diet and housing needs, as well as daily mental and social stimulation.
Exotic birds' lifespans reach into decades (some reaching 70 plus years of age), which means choosing one for a pet is a lifelong commitment (and you may also need to make arrangements for their care if you become unable to do so).
So to answer the question if exotic birds make good pets, if you have the time, space, commitment, finances and patience needed to correctly care for these high-maintenance animals, they are incredibly rewarding to be around and are every bit as loyal and loving as a dog or cat.
However, exotic bird ownership is not for everyone and should not be taken lightly. In addition, many wild exotic birds are still captured for the pet trade and sold illegally around the world. If you're interested in sharing your life with an exotic bird, please adopt one in need of a home from a reputable exotic bird rescue organization.
Keel-Billed Toucans in the Wild
In the wild, keel-billed toucans are social birds that live in groups of six or more. Their large bills are made of keratin (the same substance that makes up human hair and fingernails) in a honeycomb-like structure, making them incredibly light yet durable.
It's thought that toucans use their bills to attract mates as well as to reach foods hanging on hard-to-reach branches or tucked away in deep tree cavities. Their favorite foods are tropical forest fruits, but they will also eat insects, lizards, snakes and even bird eggs.
Keel-billed toucans play an important role in their local habitats, as they swallow fruit whole then regurgitate large seeds, while smaller seeds are passed through their digestive systems. As they move through the forest, they therefore help to replant fruit trees.2
Keel-billed toucans are not considered endangered although they are facing habitat loss due to human activity. Further, according to the Rainforest Alliance:3
"Habitat loss is a constant menace to the species' populations. They are sometimes still hunted for their meat and ornamental feathers. At one time, they were very popular in the pet trade but it has since been revealed that their poor disposition actually makes them bad pets.
"They're valuable to Belize — where they are the national bird — bringing tourists who hope to catch a glimpse of their stunning plumage."