Most people like to think that they have some kind of master plan for their lives, but for Jerry Jennings fate came disguised as a pair of toucans in a San Fernando Valley pet store in 1976.
A longtime bird lover who had raised finches, Jennings thought the male and female toucans, each adorned with stunningly oversized beaks and plumage of bright colors, would become gaga over each other. But to his surprise, the cage mates remained completely disinterested in each other and that was when he became aware that there was more than one kind of toucan species.
“They were sold to me as a pair of the same species, but one of the birds was actually an Ariel toucan and the other was an emerald toucanet. That was an eye-opener for me about toucans,” he explained.
Jennings, now a world-renowned expert and breeder of the crowd-pleasing avians as well as being the owner of Emerald Forest Bird Gardens, located on 40 acres in the woodland hills above Fallbrook.
“I started doing research and asking questions and that was when I discovered there were so many different varieties of toucans, so I bought another male and female to pair up with the first two, started building larger outdoor cages in my one-acre backyard in Woodland Hills and things took off from there.”
Although it wasn’t exactly that quick or simple of a learning curve for the proper care and feeding of the birds, two years later Jennings achieved two world first breeding awards when the Ariel toucans became the first pair to breed in captivity, and days later, the emerald toucanets provided another first when they laid eggs.
Encouraged by aviary officials from the San Diego Zoo and other zoos about the need to develop breeding methods for toucans in captivity, Jennings’ expanding passion for the charming birds motivated him to start searching for a larger piece of property. In the mid-1980s, he began looking all over California for the right place to create an outdoor breeding site, and by 1990, he purchased the Fallbrook site and began constructing outdoor cages that simulated natural environments.
“This property was just what I was looking for because it’s in a semitropical climate that can accommodate these birds who are native to climates in Central and South America,” said Jennings, a now-retired attorney who was also the founder of the American Federation of Aviculture and served as president of the organization for several years. “Not only that, I wanted [a place] that has plenty of room to grow, a stream running through it and existing buildings for a nursery and bird raising
Today, Emerald Forest Bird Gardens, which breeds and raises toucans for zoos and private breeders throughout the world as well as for individual pets, is the largest toucan breeding operation in the country. The highly-lauded facility has been home to twenty-five species and 350 individuals, the world’s largest collection of captive toucans in a single place.
The large cages are measured in “bird flight” feet and are usually nine feet high and range in size from eight feet by twelve feet up to ten feet by thirty feet. This provides plenty of space for a pair of birds to become compatible. They may take some time to get to know each other, ignore each other, fight with each other or become enamored with each other. When toucans do become simpatico, the male and female will sit together and the male will share its food of fruit and nuts with the female “much like a man might ask his date if she wants to share a glass of wine,” said Jennings with a smile. And toucans are monogamous, he added.
The toucan family Ramphastidae includes several types of large “show stopper” toucan species which are recognizable by their black coats and colorful banana-shaped beaks. The birds use their beaks, which vary in markings from species to species, to pluck fruit in the wild. Their beaks have also been studied by aerospace engineers for their unusually high impact strength, according to Jennings.
Other species in the toucan family found at Emerald Forest Bird Gardens include the smaller toucanets and aracaris which are usually more exquisitely colored and have smaller beaks than the larger toucans.
The bird gardens are not just limited to toucans, however. Parrots, cockatoos, macaws, tanagers and turacos are also bred at the facility. And guiding visitors into the somewhat hidden grounds are several dozen peacocks strutting their stuff while hawks soar across the treetops.
With all those avian residents living in one location, it doesn’t exactly make for a soothing lullaby of bird land. It’s more like a peculiar cacophony of sounds like Chihuahua barks, guttural throat clearings, shrieks, card shufflings, whistles, twitters, and mournful love calls across the canyon.
Still, for Jennings, whose world travels have given him the chance to pet penguins in the Antarctic, pursue parrots in Peru and create conservation habitats in Costa Rica, all those feathered-friend greetings at Emerald Forest Bird Gardens sound like home, sweet home.
For more information about Emerald Forest Bird Gardens, purchase prices for birds and tours available by appointment, visit emeraldforestbirds.com.