Tea for toucan
Wednesday 27 March 2002
Most of us welcome the chance to stop for a cup of tea - besides, it's good to have a break. At London Zoo however, there's a rather more important reason why the keel-billed toucans drink tea. These stunning birds have a unusual metabolism that means they require a very low-iron diet, and tannins found in tea actually help to reduce the absorption of iron in their body
These toucans, found in the tropical forests of Central America, are susceptible to a disorder that causes iron to build up in their body, and this can be harmful if iron levels get too high. There is, however, a natural defence to this. In the wild, keel-billed toucans rarely come to ground and they bathe and drink in pools of water that collect in tree-hollows and in plants called bromeliads. It is thought this water contains a high level of tannins from the rotting leaves that fall into the pools. The tannins are thought to bind to iron in their body and actually remove it from their system, thereby helping to reduce the iron levels. To replicate this, the keepers at London Zoo provide a source of tannin by putting tea bags in their water bowl or soaking their food in tea.
"Any brand of normal tea can be used," says John Ellis, Curator of Birds for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), "but it is important not to provide the birds with tea continuously as this could also remove other beneficial nutrients from the body along with the iron. We use tea in their water on a one month-on, one-month off cycle."
There are four keel-billed toucans at London Zoo, as well as two other species of toucan, which are all a real winner with the visitors. The spectacular keel-billed variety are covered in glossy black feathers, and have huge bills almost half their body length - the bills are a mix of wonderful fluorescent yellows, greens and reds in colour. In the wild, they live high in the tree canopies feeding mainly on fruit and berries, but also eating insects and occasionally lizards. The keepers at London Zoo feed the toucans on fruit and a special pellet designed for these birds.
These birds are not threatened in the wild, but their international trade is monitored by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) as toucans are popular pets.
Notes to Editors:
- The toucans body-length is approximately 40cm and their bill a further 15cm.
- The huge bill is not as heavy as it looks. It is in fact a thin horny sheath supported by a criss-cross of thin bony rods. It is fragile and sometimes breaks.
- Their huge amazing bills have evolved to allow these birds to access food, such as fruit, that other species of their size cannot reach.
- The amazing colours on the bill are for display, but are surprisingly camouflaged in the tropical forests.
- Toucans hatch 2-3 eggs.
- Their croak-like call has been described as "winding an old clock" and in chorus they can sound like a pondful of frogs!
- The iron-related disorder is called hemochromatosis or iron storage disease (ISD) and it is thought that high dietary iron is the major cause of this disease.
For further information please contact the Zoological Society of London's Public Relations Office:
Peter Beatty, Debbie Curtis or Joe Laing: 020 7449 6361/6363/6236
Fax: 020 7449 6362
E.mail: firstname.lastname@example.org www.londonzoo.co.uk
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