Barbets combine gorgeous coloration and a unique body plan. Related to woodpeckers and toucans, barbets somehow bring both to mind. I’ve always enjoyed working with them, although a “barbet incident” gave me quite a scare early-on in my career…
“Frank, your barbet is on my fence.”
Some 3 decades ago, while still a novice bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo, I was working in a huge, densely-planted exhibit that housed a pair of Fire-Tufted Barbets (Psilopogon pyrolophus) and other Asian birds. My supervisor rushed in to say that one of my barbets was perched on a fence outside the zoo director’s kitchen window (he lived on the grounds). The director, an internationally-known ornithologist, was rumored to question the curators more closely about the death of “little brown birds” than giraffes. Unlike most exhibits, that housing the barbets did not have a double door, and I had often worried about escapes. So, I thought, there goes my dream job….
The barbets took an eternity to find, but they were in the exhibit. Other keepers had been dispatched to the director’s house, but the bird flew off before they arrived. The director was not known for practical jokes or drinking to excess, so I do believe that he saw a Fire-Tufted Barbet (even though they are not often kept as pets here …).
Large heads, short tails, stocky builds and thick beaks surrounded by bristles at the base have led some to describe barbets as “odd” or even “clumsy-looking”. I prefer “unique”, and in any event the brilliant colors of most make up for any lack of “grace” in their body-plans. The Toucan Barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus), for example, exhibits light and dark blue, black, yellow, copper and bright red in its plumage.
The world’s 75-85 barbet species are classified in the order Piciformes, along with toucans (their closest relatives), honey guides and woodpeckers.
Range and Habitat
Barbets reach their greatest diversity in Africa, where 42 species (Family Lybiidae) have been described. Twenty six species, belonging to the Family Magalaimidae, are found in Asia. Most of the 14 species dwelling in Central and South America (Family Capitonide) are fantastically colored. The Toucan Barbets, (Family Semnornithidae) are also native to Latin America; 2 species have been described.
Most barbets are birds of forest interiors although some, such as the Coppersmith Barbet, inhabit city parks and gardens. The call of this 6-inch-long Asian native sounds like a hammer striking metal. The Coppersmith Barbet’s habit of issuing the call 80-100 times per minute, during the hottest part of the day, has earned it the nickname “Brain Fever Bird” (see video below). Elsewhere, various birds are given similar names…I must say that one dove species did annoy me during afternoons spent working in the hot Venezuelan sun!
Barbets in Captivity
Barbets require a large, well-planted aviary, and are sensitive to cold temperatures and damp conditions. Males may attack non-receptive females, and even larger birds of other species may not be safe. They are best kept alone or in pairs, although I had no problems housing Fire-Tufted Barbets with jay thrushes, bulbuls and Argus Pheasants.
Many individuals become quite bold in time, and will approach closely when offered favored treats.
All barbets are cavity nesters, with most utilizing tree hollows. Those that nest within termite mounds or underground are said to be capable of burrowing out of an aviary – not a capability one usually associates with birds!
Bearded, Gilded, Double-Toothed, White-Headed, Crested, Yellow, D’Arnaud’s and several other species are kept in the USA; please write in for specific information.
Although typically thought of as fruit-eaters, many barbets are skillful hunters and nest-raiders as well. I’ve observed them capture anoles, spiders and other animals that were established in their exhibits. Understanding the natural history of the barbets you keep is essential if you are to succeed.
Most fare well on a diet comprised of a wide variety of fruits, berries, figs and dates. The fruit should be coated with a mixture of Insectivorous Bird Food, Softbill Select and Egg Food. Hard boiled egg and some cooked ground beef should be offered regularly.
Crickets, mealworms and other invertebrates are essential to the health of many species, and are indispensible for pairs with chicks; many also relish chopped pink mice. I maintain insect traps, such as the Zoo Med Bug Napper, to help meet the needs of the insectivorous birds under my care. Canned Invertebrates are a convenient means of adding variety to barbet diets.
Water for bathing is a must. Food sometimes collects among the bristles at the base of the bill and must be manually removed. Be careful when doing so, as barbets are capable of inflicting serious wounds with their powerful bills.
Video: Coppersmith Barbet calling (imagine this for hours on end, in hot sun!)
Barbet at feeder image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mmcnally
Bearded Barbet image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Leszek Leszczynsky
Red and Yellow Barbet image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Ikiwaner