Diet last updated January 19th, 2004_____________________________________________________
The diet used at Riverbanks has evolved over the last 24 years. For all of the ramphastids the current diet is simply 55% diced fruit + 45% proprietary pellets (by volume). In the early days, we fed fruit, Bird of Prey meat, and dog kibble. Only after about 1985 did we begin to feed proprietary pellets, following mounting evidence pointing to the harmful effects of high levels of dietary iron.
All ramphastids are highly susceptible to
hemosiderosis (iron storage disease). Although the exact etiology of iron
storage disease is unclear, there is enough evidence to suggest that high
dietary iron is the main, if not primary, cause of the disease. We currently
use Tropical Bits and Red Apple Jungle Pellets. Both products have been used at
Riverbanks for several years and certainly appear to promote breeding and good
With the correct diet, toucans can be expected to enjoy fairly long lives; and as diets improve, there is every reason to expect life-spans to increase significantly.
Ramphastids are omnivores in the wild. They eat a range of fruits, insects, small birds, lizards, small rodents and even small snakes. However, in captivity, a diet low in meat is recommended to minimize the birds’ overall iron intake. Indeed, we feed no meat whatsoever to our birds except pinkies, briefly, when they are rearing chicks. See Feeding Chicks. Experience suggests that serious, and probably irreversible, liver damage can result from only several months of exposure to high iron diets. Provided that a suitable proprietary softbill pellet is used, the nutritional benefit of meat appears to be zero, while the risk of inducing iron storage disease is great.
Riverbanks diet for all ramphastid
species (by volume)
55% Diced fruits
37% Tropical Bits
6% Red Apple Jungle Pellets
2 % Soaked Hills Science Canine Maintenance Kibble
Diced fruits (by volume):
10% seasonal fruit or apple
0.5% Romaine lettuce
This is a tiny pellet manufactured by Marion Zoological, Wayzata, MN. There are identical and equally good pellets manufactured by ZooPreem, Kaytee and others. The pellet is the size of canary seed and actually marketed for finches and canaries. The pellets are so small that they stick to all of the fruit pieces and are ingested with every mouthful. Arguably, these pellets are not necessary in a toucan diet, provided the birds eat larger pellets such as Red Apple Jungle, equal to at least 50% of the total intake. However, the addition of the tiny pellets ensures the greatest level of balanced nutrition by sticking to every piece of fruit and partly dissolving on it. This may contribute to our birds’ year-round good health, even during the winter when temperatures occasionally fall to the low 20’s Fahrenheit.
Red Apple Jungle
This is another Marion Zoological product and is a larger extruded pellet about 3/4" long. It is typical of the kind of pellet used to feed toucans in most collections.
Hills Science Canine Maintenance Kibble
For aracaris and toucanets we feed 6 pieces of soaked dog kibble per bird per day. For the larger toucans, 7 pieces per bird per day are offered. The inclusion of this food is an attempt to create a balanced omnivore diet although, as with all pellets, the iron content is of concern and importance.
The finished mixture should be moist. Squeeze and thoroughly mix all of the ingredients so that the Tropical Bits stick to the fruit. If the food has been compressed during storage, loosen / mix it, using your fingers, so the birds can reach all of the ingredients.
We do not feed live food except for chick-rearing. For the first several days of the chicks’ lives, we offer 1" crickets to the adults in a small plastic aquarium. See Breeding.
Tea / Tannins
In the wild, toucans rarely, if ever, come to the ground to drink. Instead, their drinking water is found in tree crotches that are thought to leach tannins into the collected rain water. The tannins are thought to bind to nutrients such as iron, making them unavailable to the body. In captivity, tannins, in the form of regular tea, can be placed in the birds’ drinking water to have the same effect. We leave tea bags in buckets of water for a few hours to impart an obvious tint of brown. Any brand of tea can be used; it does not have to be a special variety. It is important not to use the tea treated water continuously, otherwise beneficial nutrients may also be lost from the body along with the iron. Tea is offered as the sole source of drinking water for one month; untreated water is then used for the following month. This on/off treatment cycle is repeated continuously.
We are not aware of any studies that have been conducted to confirm or deny the above theory in birds, although in people, it has already been shown that tea reduces iron absorption. In practice, using tea (one-month-on, one-month-off) appears to do no harm whatsoever to ramphastids, and may be a simple and cheap prophylaxis.