The name barbet is applied to several similar- looking birds distributed throughout the tropics. They belong to the Piciformes, the order that includes the woodpeckers and their relatives, and like them they nest in holes, either in trees or excavated in the ground or termite hills, depending on species. Recent DNA analysis has shown they can be divided into several distinct groups:
1) The Asian barbets – these branched off first from the ancestral form, which was more similar to other birds.
|Red-Crowned Barbet (Borneo)|
3) The New world barbets and toucans. Presumably at a fairly early stage an ancestral African barbet managed to cross the Atlantic (which was much narrower then) and colonised South America, giving rise to these colourful and well-known birds
|Gilded Barbet (Columbia)|
In addition to fruit, they also eat a wide range of insects are taken, including ants, cicadas, dragonflies, crickets, locusts, beetles, moths, mantids, as well as scorpions and centipedes. On occasion, they may also feed on lizards, frogs and geckos.
Because the bill of the barbet is not as 'chisel-like' as a woodpecker they often dig their nesting holes into softer wood or plant materials; an African species digs into a dirt bank. They have been known to use old woodpecker holes also. Generally the holes are usually high above the ground. The hole is just large enough for a single bird to pass in and out of and is often placed under a branch to shelter from direct inclement weather. They typically nest in tree cavities. The hen usually lays between 2 to 4 eggs that are incubated for 13 - 15 days. Nesting duties are shared by both parents, but young from previous years may remain on the territory and help with raising the next generation of their siblings.
At present they are listed as Least Concern, but in common with many species, the long overdue EU import ban has revealed a lack of sustainability in the captive population. As a group, most of the worlds barbets are listed by the IUCN as of Least Concern, but one or two species with small ranges are listed as Vulnerable or Near Threatened. The most important function of the captive population is to act as model species to perfect breeding and husbandry protocols in case any more intensive intervention is needed for these threatened species.
Next week a new series: turtles, tortoises, and terrapins – past, present, and future.
(images from tanzaniabirds, Arkive, IBC)