It has been over three weeks since Pepe’s fall and subsequent move out of the aviary he shared with Paz. In true animal/Buddhist fashion, always existing in the present moment, Paz has also moved on with her life. Due to some truly unfortunate timing, we had just completed and installed Paz and Pepe’s newly designed nest box just prior to Pepe’s incident, as they were beginning to exhibit a lot of their mating season behaviors. It has been such a bummer to watch Paz, now alone and without a mate, commit fully to the task of preparing her nest, which she seems to adore.
Having fully accepted that Pepe would not be returning, she diverted her attention to Paco. Even with the original canvas wall in place and no visual contact between the two, she would spend portions of her day devoted to purring and trying to feed him through their shared wall. When she was not actively courting him, she would station herself in her nest, peering out through the entrance hole as though she were waiting for his arrival.
As you can imagine, this tugged heavily on my heart strings. Looking out at the aviaries, seeing Paz and Paco living side by side with a wall in between them began to feel a bit unnatural. Because we knew that Pepe would never be returning to the large aviary, we began to see the potentially huge benefit of being able to open up the entire space and turn the two aviaries into one big flight for Paz and Paco to enjoy together. I also longed for them to both enjoy the companionship of another bird, as I often worry about them being lonely.
But there were also obviously many potential downsides to their pairing that gave us pause. The emotional roller coaster that was Paz and Pepe’s relationship made us leery to jump into it again. I was also concerned about what would happen to the loving, pet-like relationship I had worked so hard to achieve with Paco. I frequently have heard people in the bird world say that you either have pet birds or you have breeder birds, implying that you cannot have both. When I made the original decision to pair Paz and Pepe, I had decided that was a risk I was willing to take, as my relationships with each of them had never been as developed due to their more reserved personalities. But now that the choice was back on the table for my beloved baby Paco, the decision weighed heavily on me – was that something I was willing to potentially sacrifice?
Ever since we adopted the Three-Cans, it was never my intention to breed them. I know nothing about breeding birds and I’ve always felt that I lack the emotional fortitude that is required, as loss of life is often inevitable in the early stages with fragile baby birds. But with Paz and Pepe, we ended up allowing them to be together and breed because we felt it was what they really wanted, that it was only natural for them to live as a pair. And in the end, we made this same decision for Paz and Paco. I felt that my reasons for not allowing them to be together would ultimately be selfish. If there was an opportunity to potentially enrich their lives with companionship within their own species and much larger living accommodations, I needed to set my pet desires aside and give them that chance.
We went about socializing Paz and Paco in much the same way we had originally socialized Paz and Pepe. Moving in small steps as we tested the waters, we started by rolling up the canvas between them to see if they would fight or interact peacefully through their shared wire wall. While there was no fighting, there was definitely a lack of interest on Paco’s part. Paz would court him with her favorite toys and food and he would largely ignore her, as if to say, “Sorry, sweetheart…I’m already seeing someone.”. Because Paco had chosen me as his “mate” early on, I tried to back off a lot of the attention I was giving him to hopefully allow him to make room for Paz in his heart.
After a couple of days of mellow interactions through the wall, we decided it was time to introduce them. I brought Paco next door in his backpack to meet Paz for two short sessions the first day and then a full 8 hours the following day.
Let me just say that socializing animals has got to be one of my least favorite things to do. While it can be an interesting study in body language, it is also not for the weak at heart (ie. me). I remember as a child, we had pairs of bunnies and each time one of them would die (bunnies only average about 4 years at best in their tiny little lives), we would bring in a new bunny as a companion for the one that remained. They would always eventually grow to love and snuggle with each other, but only after days of shockingly vicious fighting you would never associate with the word “bunny”. The same can be said about toucans.
Paz and Pepe went through the initial getting-to-know-you beak fencing that is typical of toucan socialization and courtship. I was prepared to go through the same with Paz and Paco – and it was the same in a lot of ways. Neither one chased the other down to the point of exhaustion, however, their fencing was much more intense than what we had witnessed with Paz and Pepe. I think a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that they are more closely matched in attitude and mobility than Paz and Pepe ever were. Neither can was quite willing to back down, as Pepe had always done being the smaller, weaker can. I even had to intervene a few times when they were getting too close to poking each other’s eyes out in a fit of fury.
My 8 hour day in the aviaries alternated between crushing boredom and intense bouts of stress. At first, Paco had the upper hand, probably surprising Paz with his scrappiness. I always call him my “little ninja” and this was one of those times that he really lived up to the moniker. They would fence a bit, then separate and go about their individual business. But as time wore on, they became unable to focus on anything other than fighting with each other and Paz’s larger size and greater strength eventually won out.
As they fenced, they kept reaching points where they would lock beaks together and she would use her size to dominate over him and literally fling him across the enclosure. Because he is so agile, he would never fall, but instead, glide to a stop and quickly hop back up from the ground onto a low perch. I believe this was key to him making it for as long as he did with her, as this is where Pepe got himself into danger. Paz fights a bit on the dirty side – her strategy seems to be to kick them when they are down. In these moments, she would rush down to go for the final blow with Paco, but he would already be up and postured to defend himself before she could trap him.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I hadn’t already separated them at this point. The fact is, I was just trying to gauge the situation as best I could as the day progressed, trying to give them as much time as possible to hopefully sort out their trust issues and move on to the next stage in their relationship. Neither appeared exhausted and they were giving each other short break periods to recover after each match. However, it all culminated in the afternoon and gave us our final sign for their future (or lack thereof) as a pair.
During what would be their final round of beak fencing, Paz saw an opportunity to make a quick grab for Paco’s neck and she took it. She locked in and tossed him down, still attached and shaking him as he flailed. It all happened in a sickening flash before they were on the ground, with Paco fighting for his life. It was the single worst moment I have experienced with the Three-Cans so far. David and I lunged in immediately and pried them apart. Thankfully, the only damage Paz seemed to have done was ripping out a few of Paco’s neck feathers, but that was enough for me. I brought Paco back to the safety of his aviary and cried like a baby because I almost lost my baby.
Paz really confuses me from a behavioral standpoint and out of curiosity’s sake, I wish I could find more answers about why she acts the way she does. With both of the males, she always seemed eager to court them into mating, yet when given an opportunity during a moment of weakness, she was also always ready to move in for the kill. Perhaps this is a female Toco thing or maybe it’s just a Paz thing. Maybe it’s just because she is so much bigger and stronger than the males available to her. I am also aware that there could be environmental aspects that contribute to her seemingly confused behavior (rough past, aviary size, lack of early socialization with other birds, human interference, etc.). But whatever it may be, I’m done with breeding (or at least attempting to breed) toucans and am ready to leave it to the professionals.
I hearby announce the official conclusion of our foray into toucan breeding. I must say, as much as I actually did wish for it all to work out on the Cans’ behalf, I find that I’m quite relieved with this outcome. We are beyond fortunate that we were able to intervene at the times we did and still have both of our males alive and healthy with us. We gave it our best shot and it’s time to move on with our lives. From here on out, my energies will be focused on enriching the Three-Cans’ individual lives as best I can.