As I previously mentioned, I was able to spend a week at a Toucan rescue center that has come to harbor other animals as well. When I track toucans in the wild, it typically involves lots of walking and not a lot of opportunity to see the toucans. They are either blocked because of tree cover or once we DO see them, we try to keep a distance so that we don’t scare them, causing them to move unwillingly, skewing our tracking data. So, working with captive toucans was a great chance to get close to them, interact with them, and even watch their behaviour. The idea of the rescue ranch is to create active breeding programs for the species of toucans in Costa Rica, so most of the toucans are paired up. A pair of Emerald Toucanets are successful breeding partners and have had a few nests in the past. Toucans, Araçaris, and Toucanets all live in cavities, holes in trees, so each enclosure is provided with a stump and a dug out hole for nesting. I was excited to be able to conduct the seed trials on the Emerald Toucanets, because that is a species I haven’t seen in the wild, nor is it a species that we use for tracking in the regular research.
We included them in the seed trial to test a theory that the small the bird, the quicker the seeds will pass through their system. And, Toucanets are the smallest of the Toucan family. So, I entered the pair’s enclosure with various berries in hand to run the trial.
The trial is done by giving each bird a ‘cherry’, a ‘berry’, and then a ficus fruit. A stop watch is started after the ‘cherry’ is swallowed and then it is a waiting game. You watch and record the bird behaviour, if it is regurgitating the seeds, if it is defecating the seeds and once you have at least 2 seeds from the ‘cherry’, the seed from the ‘berry’ and there is no more ficus seeds in the poop, the trial is done.
The female toucanet which is more familiar with people ate all of the berries from my hand almost immediately. So, I turned to give the male the berries as well and realized he was going to be a lot more difficult. I would hold out a fruit so it was obvious to him, put it in a location easy for him to get, and then would go stand by the female to make sure she wouldn’t swoop in and take the fruit before him, because then my trial would be messed up. After 20 minutes of picking up dropped fruit and task-fully re-placing them, the male had only eaten half a cherry and the berry. Too much time had passed to give me accurate results, so I scrapped his trial, no longer paying him any attention. But, as I sat there watching the female and occasionally glancing at the male, I got to see their true interaction.
The female would stay near me, seeing me as her free meal ticket. The male would fly to her, and she would fly away just before he would land next to her. So, he would follow, and she would move again. It was like she was always a step in front of him, and quite literally wanted nothing to do with him. He would occasionally pick at a piece of papaya in their fruit bowl and eat it. And then, as if to apologize for whatever he did to make her irritated with him, he took her a piece of fruit. He would make a low clicking sound, and she would greedily take the piece of fruit and swallow it. As soon as it was down, he would fly away, giving her space. Then a few minutes later, he would do it again. I chuckled to myself at the similarity of the behaviour between them and humans. An hour and 15 minutes in to the trial, I was almost done. I was just waiting for the female to regurgitate the berry seed and have a ‘clean’ defecation. When all of the sudden I saw the male regurgitate his berry...whole. not just the seed. The whole berry. That in itself is interesting, but I realized what he was about to do a second too late. Just as I thought, he flew straight to the female. And, I jumped up. If she were to eat that berry, my hour and 15 minutes would be wasted. My data no longer accurate. I walk to them quickly in attempts to scare the male away with his offering, but it just sped up the process. The female jumped for the berry and swallowed before I had moved 2 steps forward. It was 5.30pm and starting to get dark, so that was it. Nothing else I could do but try again the next day. I just couldn’t believe that the male threw up a berry just to feed the female, and obviously not caring, ate it. After I had been waiting over an hour. It isn’t so much even the waiting because at one point I sat in an enclosure with a pair of toucans for 5hours 38 minutes and 17seconds waiting for them to regurgitate a trial involving 5 ‘berry’ seeds (at the end of that amount of time I was still waiting for 4 seeds out of a total of 10 so we gave up). The thing that got me was the effort I had gone through to have the male eat the berries only for him to give it up in the name of love. All the frustration aside, I must say it was absolutely adorable and quite funny to watch how they were together and to get a sense that they were probably very good parents.