Home | Bird Behavior | Barbets – Stunning, Unique Aviary Birds for Experienced Keepers

Barbets – Stunning, Unique Aviary Birds for Experienced Keepers

Barbet at feederBarbets 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

Barbet at feederBarbets 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.

Red and Yellow BarbetMost 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.



Further Reading

Video: Coppersmith Barbet calling  (imagine this for hours on end, in hot sun!)

African Barbet Natural History

Cooperative Breeding in Toucan Barbets


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


  1. avatar

    Hi, Frank,

    Just viewed some of the videos, & came across one that had lots of Blue-Head Pionus eating at the clay lick. I have a soon-to-be 8-yr-old male, Sebastian. It was so cool to see them gather at the clay lick! Of course, my Sebastian is better looking than all of them!

    Take care,

    Sandy & Sebastian

  2. avatar

    Hello Sandy,

    Thanks for your interest. Clay lick phenomenon is really something, isn’t it? I missed a chance to visit one frequented by several macaw species a few years ago, hope to see it first hand some day,

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hi Iam getting bearded barbet I well have it in a big macaw cage what kind of care and how to train them thank you James

  4. avatar

    Hello James,

    Wow..wonderful birds; one of the largest of the group. I’ve never tried to keep them in typical cages, nor have I run across anyone doing so. They are best kept in large outdoor aviaries or re-modeled indoor rooms. Not sure if any would adjust to cage life. In large exhibits, they eventually learn to come near for food; I think a macaw cage might be stressful, and could frustrate attempts to habituate to your presence..they do best when given the option to stay away until confidence builds. Please keep me posted, best, farnk

  5. avatar

    Hi James,
    We have rescued a baby Crested barbet that was blown out of his tree during a storm, and abandoned. He is feathered, and can flutter, and we are hoping to release him in the garden when he can fly. What to feed him? Pawpaw and banana seem to go straight through him! Mealworms and earthworms? What about mincemeat? Please help, would hate to get it wrong.
    Thank you.

  6. avatar

    Sorry, Frank, not James!

  7. avatar

    Hi Jane,

    Youngsters feed entirely upon insects, which is likely why the fruit is not being digested (they take fruit as they mature). Mealworms, earthworms, and other non-stinging insects, meat and hard-boiled eggs would work well. They need a great deal of food, so stock up! If you have a food grinder, try grinding up the egg with the shell, as this is a good calcium source. If not, mix in some reptile calcium powder or bird vitamin/mineral supplements if available, or powdered cuttlebone. He may get enough Calcium from earthworms and wild-caught insects, but mealworms do not provide much; crickets if available from mealworm source can be gut-loaded with calcium also…let me know if you need details.

    Please keep me posted…I’m based in the USA, where we can only see barbets in zoos and sometimes in private aviculture; I’ve worked with them at the Bronx Zoo, but it must be interesting to have them out and about in the yard…where are you located?

    Enjoy, Frank

  8. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    Thanks very much, he has done much better without the fruit, we have done the egg, and bought some crickets.
    He has spent yesterday and today outside sitting in a creeper growing over the verandah, coming down to us for food, and exploring without flying off, still in a cage overnight.

    We are on the east coast of South Africa, quite near Durban, we have Crested, Black Collared, White eared Barbets and Golden Rumped Tinker Barbets visiting the garden.

    Thanks again for your help.

  9. avatar

    Hi Jane…my pleasure, glad it is going well…good that the bird is well-along already, less concerns over calcium, etc., as it was parent-fed for some time. I’m jealous!…especially now as winter sets in in NY! Please keep me posted…I and readers would enjoy any bird-watching notes you have time to share…can post here, no need to look for a related article, best, Frank

  10. avatar

    I live in south africa. I just found a baby crested barbet. I saw on the website that i can feed him eathworms. How much and often and must i give him the worm whole?

    Please help

  11. avatar

    Hi Lizelle,

    Size of food and how often he needs to be fed mainly depends upon age; it’s best to provide as many of the foods listed in the article as possible; small chicks generally eat throughout the day, so raising a young one can be quite a daunting task; for now, go by what will fit comfortably in its mouth; if you haven’t done it before, it might be best to see if you can locate a rehabilitator, or check a local nature center or avian veterinarian to see if they will accept him; I have some international lists, not sure if S Africa is covered but I can check if you need, best, Frank

  12. avatar

    Thank you Frank.

    I couldnt find someone, but its been 3 days and he is looking well. One vet told me that I can give him soft canned cat food. What is your opinion ?


  13. avatar

    We have raised lots of doves before, but not such a special bird as a crested barbet.

    Thank you so much for your help.

  14. avatar

    Hi Lizelle,

    That should be fine, just watch that it doesn’t clump up and choke the bird, or harden around the mouth edges…I’ve had better luck (other species) with the semi-moist cat food…here in US it sold in pouches; or try dry food soaked with water…a bit firmer consistency than canned food seems best; try to add some insects, hard boiled egg etc as well, as we don’t know their exact needs…must be nice living where one can see these birds nearby! Best, Frank

  15. avatar

    Well, doves are not easy by any means! Good luck and please keep me posted, best, Frank

  16. avatar

    Frank, I am so glad I have found you ! I got some semi moist cat food in poaches. He likes it. I still give him insects as well. Will keep you posted

    Thanks for all you replies.


  17. avatar

    Great!…enjoy and please let me know how all goes, best regards, Frank

  18. avatar

    Hi my barbet is doing real well I love having it! doing good in larg cage

  19. avatar

    Nice to hear, James; what species do you have? best, Frank

  20. avatar

    Hi sorry I have a bearded barbet and about two months ago I put a plant in the cage she seems to like it . But I have been looking for a Rufous-tailed Jacamar it seems they dont have them in captivity would you know if thay are available and do you know any thing about them I read a lot on them I just love them thanks James ps I do have a out door aviary with lots of small birds in it

  21. avatar

    Hello James,

    Wonderful birds but I’ve not often seen them offered in the trade. In the USA, Softbills for Sale and BirdsExpress.net would be worth looking into. Best, frank

  22. avatar

    Hello Frank.

    I always take care of injured or orphaned birds, and today somebody brought me a fully feathered young Crested Barbet. Because he is fully feathered i will keep an eye on his progress over the next 2 or 3 days and if he can fly, i will release him.
    We stay in Botswana and I love my bird population, but believe that wild birds belong in the wild so i try to release every one of them.
    The doves are the easiest to take care of and they get very naughty and also very territorial about the one that feeds them. I never keep them in cages, they have the run of my house. They will fight with anybody that tries to get close to me, and slap them with the wing. It is to funny for words.
    The birds is such a fun thing to do, and you learn every time you find a new one and they all have different personalities.

    The problem however is that people remove babies from parents and also sometimes think that the baby was abandoned and then it becomes a problem. People should stop for a while and smell the roses. If they really care, they will wait a while and be patient and then see the parents approach the babies and still feed them and take care of them even if its on the ground or on a roof or where ever. DO NOT REMOVE JUST BECAUSE YOU THINK ITS ABANDONED. First observe for a day or few hours!!!!

    Happy birding

  23. avatar

    Much appreciated, Rika.

    Enjoy and good luck in your work, Frank

  24. avatar

    Hi sir!
    An injured coppersmith barbet had fallen in front of our home..u think it has some injuries on her leg..cud u pls suggest wat shud i do..?

  25. avatar


    Unfortunately there’s no way to know exactly what is wrong with the bird w/o a veterinary exam. If it is a simple leg injury or broken leg, this will usually heal on it’s own . Many birds get along well with only 1 leg. Broken legs heal best when splinted…best if you consult an experienced local person – veterinarian, bird breeder, zoo, perhaps a pet store. Best regards, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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