Captivating Turacos

An article from Cage & Aviary Birds 7th December 2002 – written by Brian Byles. (Reproduced here with his kind permission.)

Meet a man who specialises in turacos

Many top aviculturists are regarded as specialists and are best known for their exploits with a single family of birds. It is only when you make their acquaintance that it becomes apparent that some are also recognised experts in other, entirely different, branches of birdkeeping. Former Trearddur and Harrow school boy, David Jones, is a case in point as Brian Byles reveals.

David in one of his flights that contains about 20 young turacos, some of which were hand-reared.

David Jones has a considerable reputation as a turaco breeder. To his credit, he also knows more than most about waterfowl and ornamental pheasants. First ducks and, then, pheasants took a prominent place in David’s life before turacos came on the scene. He recalls that his parents had a quarry from which the rubbish was removed before it was filled with water to make it suitable for his first aquatic species. David’s maternal grandparents also played their part in preparing him for aviculture. They owned a large wooded property on which they organised pheasant shoots. More importantly, they had free-range Lady Amherst’s pheasants that made a lasting impression on their grandson.

As soon as his school days were over David began amassing a collection, which included both waterfowl and pheasants. This was at a time when his father was the Duke of Westminster’s agent at Eccleston, near Chester. As a result, his birds were kept on part of the duke’s estate where the Jones family lived in a huge tied property built in the style of a French chateau.

Interest in turacos

Now 46 and married with five children aged between 4 and 21, David splits his time between family, teaching, computers and his avicultural pursuits, which include being an active member of the International Turaco Society. If he has one regret it is the fact that the soil where he now lives is not suitable for another of his favourites, peacock pheasants, which have been passed on to other breeders. So, why does David find the 23-strong turaco family – which includes three species of go-away birds and two plantain-eaters – so attractive?

In the wild turacos are arboreal, spending much of their time in the tree tops where they progress by means of extravagant leaps. Where space permits, these movements are replicated, as David has discovered, in captivity. Their feet are semi-zygodactylic (two toes forward, two back), allowing them to run along horizontal branches at speed and with considerable ease.

Their colour and movement fascinate him. He recalls the time when he lived in Chester and was looking for birds to add to his collection. He considered both fruit pigeons and turacos. Fruit pigeons, he decided, “sat and looked pretty”, in much the same way that pheasants look and behave. Then he came across a pair of White-cheeked turacos. He was smitten. They were not just extremely attractive birds – most species are shades of green with some violet, blue and red – he was fascinated by the way they continually moved.

These features – their colour and movement – made up David’s mind. He wanted turacos. He purchased “a pair”. But the following season both laid eggs. He had experienced his first lesson with Musophagidae species. Visual appearances, when sexing these birds, can be unreliable. Even when he exchanged birds with Chester Zoo, where he was working at the time, it didn’t resolve the problem. The zoo’s two birds also proved to be females. It was only when he came across a bird garden with two males that his breeding programme took off.

Since those early days David’s turaco collection has expanded. It now includes pairs of White-cheeked, Fischer’s, Shalow’s, Green-crested, Violets and Red-crested. So, do David’s birds keep him busy? It seems a silly question to ask when you learn that, at times, he is still mixing their food at 3am. He is also at pains to suggest that it is not so much the adults that keep him on his toes. It is the extra work created by the youngsters (he bred 61 during 2001 and over 50 this year) that pile on the work-load.

David prides himself on his breeding results. One professional to whom he sold birds wondered how he managed to be so successful. David blandly suggests “there is nothing to it”. Provide the birds with the right accommodation and plenty of good food, he says, and just let them get on with it.

Ready to lay

Turacos, says David, will lay all year round, but the breeding season really takes off during March. Pairs are left together from one season to another but much depends upon when they come into condition. Nest-boxes, positioned both inside and out, are left in place. There is little point in removing them, he explains, as his birds will lay even on food trays if they are so inclined. Thin twigs, pulled from branches, and dry straw are the most favoured nesting material. When I asked David to explain the serious business of producing acceptable numbers of babies it becomes apparent that he takes away eggs as soon as they are laid. They are replaced with either infertile turaco eggs, or small bantam eggs. The eggs are placed in an incubator until they begin to chip and are then transferred to a second incubator to hatch.

Once out of the shell, the chicks are placed under whichever pairs are in the best position to accept them. This is usually those that have been sitting the longest. David admits that such a routine creates extra work. It does, however, overcome problems, such as females that do not incubate satisfactorily. It is not unknown, he says, for females to give up part way through the 22 day incubation period, or come off their eggs – usually two in number – too frequently, resulting in dead-in-shell.

Another advantage of this system is that it is possible to reduce the time females spend incubating before they can start to rear chicks. It can result in more youngsters being reared more successfully than would otherwise be the case.

This system also raises interesting situations. In one case during the past season, David had a pair of White-cheeks rearing two Fischer’s chicks and, in the next flight, a pair of Fischer’s raising two White-cheeks. If there is a problem, it comes at the end of the season when the aim is to stop pairs breeding. On occasions when eggs hatch, but no females are available to rear them David’s wife, Julie, takes charge. She hand-rears the chicks with help from the children.

David’s daughter, three-year-old Samantha, feeds four baby turacos.

Surgical sexing

I asked David if some species are more difficult to breed than others. He said that if there is a problem, it is that of getting “true” pairs. David pointed out that he has what was sold to him as a “pair” of Violets. They turned out to be two males, despite acting like a pair. However surgical sexing can be the first step to solving the problem, but finding a spare hen to make up a pair, or vice versa, can be more difficult. David doesn’t use surgical sexing these days. He prefers DNA testing. This procedure is more straightforward and there are no risks attached, over and above catching the birds and removing a few chest feathers. These feathers are sent to a laboratory for analysis, at a cost of £18 per bird; £17 if more than half-a-dozen need testing. This may seem expensive, but it prevents two birds of the same sex being “paired” together for what can be long, wasted, periods. When birds are sold, there is the added advantage of the buyers receiving a certificate to prove their sex.


David has lined timber shelters for his turacos, which, he says, can cope with cold weather. Frost-bite is the problem. Tubular heaters, connected to thermostats have, nevertheless, been installed in all shelters as a precautionary measure to keep the temperature above freezing. Windows have been double glazed to provide extra protection.

The outside planted flights vary in size. Bearing in mind the fact that turacos are active birds, David’s smallest flights are 4.8 m x 2.4 m x 2.4 m high (16ft x 8ft x 8ft). The largest are two – three times this size and some are irregular in shape, according to the space available and the position of trees. All flights are either covered with chicken wire or Twilweld. Perching takes the form of hazel and apple branches, which are changed as frequently as time allows.

David normally houses pairs on their own, but fighting can take place. However, there are exceptions to the one pair per flight rule. As a temporary measure, one of his flights recently contained several Shalow’s – youngsters from last year – plus an aggressive adult female, which had harassed every male offered to her as a mate. The idea was to gradually remove the males, that she did not like, so that eventually, it was hoped, she would accept a partner. Fate, then, took a hand. The last male in the flight died.

So, are there any drawbacks to keeping turacos? If there is a problem it is that of preparing their food. It is not just a case of throwing a handful of seed into the flights, and it is not possible to give them, for example, a whole apple. Fruit needs to be chopped into pieces, say, as small as centimetre cubes when youngsters are in the nest. Turacos may require a little more looking after than seedeaters, but as David said; “The pleasure they can provide is immeasurable. They certainly warrant a larger following in the UK.”

Even when there is snow on the ground it is important to provide the birds with fresh fruit.

Getting cheap fruit from local suppliers

Food is provided on trays that are placed 90 cm. (3ft) off the ground both inside and out. Two feeding stations are essential, David told me. This is because pairs squabble occasionally and it becomes necessary to split them up. Such was the case with a pair of his Violets recently. David finds that margarine tubes with straight sides make suitable food bowls. They cost nothing and, because of their shape, are difficult to knock over. Unfortunately, they are no longer available and those currently manufactured tip up.

Turacos are basically fruit-eaters. David’s are offered a chopped-up mix containing apples, pears, bananas, grapes, plums (from David’s garden when in season), tomatoes, lettuce, grated carrots, grated cheese and, during the breeding season, hard-boiled eggs (from his own bantams).

While fruit can be expensive, he is regularly offered free fruit, or at a reduced price if it is not in pristine condition, on his twice-weekly visits to the fruit and veg merchants.

Recently, for example, he was offered three boxes of “spotted” bananas. Shoppers weren’t keen to buy them; but they were ideal for David’s requirements. It pays, he says, to patronise local grocers, build up an understanding with them, and not rely upon supermarkets.

To the fruit David adds a dry mix made up of equal parts of a pelleted food specially produced for turacos and toucans, chick crumbs, layers’ pellets, a proprietary insectivorous food and a low iron fruit softbill food. David has experimented with livefood and has even bred his own mealworms, but has come to the conclusion that their inclusion in the diet had no effect on breeding results.

He has though been successful when using a parrot rearing food mixed with the usual turaco hand-rearing diet of banana, yoghurt and multivitamins. Mixed with warm water, the mixture is fed through a small pipette at four hourly intervals.

Suitable species for beginners

David recommends that anyone proposing to keep turacos for the first time should start with White-cheeked as they are usually the easiest to breed and, because there are reasonable numbers in the country, obtaining stock should not be a problem. He recommends starting, wherever possible, with more than one pair. He also advises swapping birds from time to time so that the gene pool doesn’t get too inbred. This is just one reason why turaco breeders, the world over, co-operate despite the fact that importing and exporting exotic species is far from easy and getting more difficult all the time.

David is planning an exchange with a South Africa breeder, but red tape has meant that the exchange is taking much longer than expected. His Fischer’s came from Holland and Belgium with a minimum of trouble. However, some species, like Bannerman’s, are protected by CITES and real rarities, such as the Black-billed, are practically non-existent in captivity.

There was a time when the Hartlaub’s was the most commonly kept turaco in the UK. However, this species has often proved to be aggressive and pairs have been known to kill each other. For this reason, it is no longer as common as it was and – even if available – it is a species for breeders with turaco experience, rather than newcomers. It is a trait that needs to be kept in mind, he suggests.