Text By Allen Jeyarajasingam
Images By Choy Wai Mun
Asian Barbets (Family Rhampastidae, sub-family Megalaiminae) are well represented in Peninsular Malaysia by three genera, viz Psilopogon, Megalaima, and Calorhamphus with 11 species. These range in size from the 15 cm Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala to the 30 cm Gold-whiskered Barbet M. chrysopogon. Sexes are alike in all species except the Red-throated Barbet M. mystacophanos. All except the Sooty Barbet Calorhamphus hayii have basically bright green plumage (darker and richer above, paler and duller below) with rather brightly coloured head patterns. For the purposes of this article, the Sooty Barbet will not be dealt with as its distinct plumage and soft part colouration leaves very little confusion with the other species. Most are primarily denizens of rainforests though a few also inhabit secondary forest and scrubby woodland close to human settlements. One species actually occurs in towns and cities. Being specialized fruit eaters and cavity nesters, barbets have evolved rather strong and stout bills, essential tools for both jobs. Usually solitary, they frequently congregate to feed in fruiting trees, sometimes in mixed species flocks. Despite their size and head patterns, their arboreal habits and green plumage blend well into the foliage, often making them extremely difficult to locate and observe; their monotonous repetitive hoots or trills often serve as the only indication of their presence.
How to identify barbets
Identification of the green coloured barbets can be very tricky especially for the beginner. Since most species frequent the canopy or crowns of trees, it is actually very difficult to see the birds. When feeding, they tend to move about, offering only fleeting glimpses of their brightly patterned heads. Sometimes when a barbet is perched directly overhead, only the paler green underparts may be clearly seen with not a chance of viewing the entire head pattern. Colour of legs is of little use since they are dull in most species except for the Coppersmith Barbet which are bright coral red. The main difficulty in identification lies in one’s inability to recognize head colour patterns quickly. Therefore correct identification of barbets entails not only familiarization of head patterns but recognition of calls as well, since each species has a distinct call pattern, which may have variations in some. White (1984) has some very good samples of barbet calls but in some species, only one variation is given. The Xeno Canto website (http://www.xeno-canto.org/) has a very good collection of barbet call recordings from South and South-East Asia, and one can actually access these, download them, and listen to them to be familiar with what they would hear in the field.
Besides head colour patterns and calls, It would also be extremely useful if one knew the relative size of each species, but in the field this may not be much of help unless mixed species feeding parties are encountered and so comparisons may be made. Knowledge of preferred habitat would be more useful. So look through your field guides and handbooks and familiarize yourself with the head colour patterns, vocalizations, and preferred habitat of each species. Wells (1999), Smythies (1999), Robson (2008), Myers (2009), and Jeyarajasingam and Pearson (2012) provide reasonably good illustrations and descriptions for easy identification of barbets.
Identification by head colour patterns, soft part colouration, and other plumage features.
Only the basic features of the crown, sides of head, throat and breast of each species will be dealt with. The Fire-tufted Barbet Psilopogon pyrrolophus is easily discerned from the other green barbets by its pale green bill with a blackish vertical half way along sides, conspicuous pale grey cheek patch, and a yellow and black breast band. Among the Megalaima barbets, two species, the Lineated Barbet M. lineata, and the Coppersmith Barbet M. haemacephala easily stand out from their other congeners. The Lineated Barbet lacks the colourful head patterns of the others and has only a pale brown head and upper breast with white streaks in addition to the distinctively straw-coloured bill and orbital skin.
The Coppersmith Barbet has a distinct red breast band separating a yellow throat and lower breast in addition to the bold dark green streaks on its light greenish underparts; features not present in other green barbets in Peninsular Malaysia.
Yellow cheek patches are present in both the Gold-whiskered M. chrysopogon and Red-crowned Barbets M. rafflesii but is larger and more oval shaped in the former. The Coppersmith, Gold-whiskered, Red-crowned, Black-browed M. oorti and the Golden-throated M. franklinii Barbets all have red foreheads. The Black-browed, Golden-throated, and Yellow-crowned M. henricii Barbets have yellow crowns. In the Gold-whiskered and Yellow-crowned Barbets, only the forecrown is yellow while the hindcrown is red in the former and blue in the latter.
The Red-crowned Barbet and the male Red-throated Barbet both have red crowns; the latter has a yellow forehead.
The throats of the Red-crowned, Yellow-crowned and Blue-eared M. australis Barbets are blue; the last also has a blue-crown and black forehead. The subspecies of the Blue-eared Barbet in the Malay Peninsula, M. a. duvaucalii has black instead of blue ear coverts.
The Golden-throated Barbet is the only species which has silvery grey sides of head and breast. The Golden-throated, Black-browed, and Coppersmith Barbets all have yellow throats while in the Gold-whiskered, it is greyish. The male Red-throated Barbet is the only species with a red throat; the female has a whitish-yellow throat and forehead, light blue forecrown and red crown.
Black superciliums are prominent features of the Black-browed and male Red-throated barbets. In the case of the Gold-whiskered and Red-crowned barbets, black masks are distinctive features.
The bill shapes and sizes are also important factors to consider. Except for the Fire-tufted and Lineated Barbets, species, the bill colour of the other species are lead grey. Even then, these too vary in size. The bills of the Gold-whiskered, Red-crowned, and Red-throated Barbets are rather large and thickset, and stand out distinctively. The bill of the Yellow-crowned Barbet is not as thickset but is still slightly longer and more robust than those of the Coppersmith, Blue-eared, Black-browed, and Golden-throated Barbets which tend to be short and stubby in comparison.
Identification by territorial calls
Since barbets are difficult to see, their territorial calls (distinct in each species) serve mainly to ascertain their presence within an area. When a bird is feeding, it is usually silent and if important field marks are not visible, do not hazard a guess. When barbets do call, it is usually from a perch and they vocalize with their bills shut, their throats puffing put with each utterance.
The Fire-tufted Barbet utters a distinctive series of shrill cicada like buzzing trills, beginning slowly and accelerating on an ascending scale before tapering off abruptly, reminiscent of a small tinny motorcycle accelerating around a corner. A very characteristic sound of the hill-stations. It also utters a sharp kik.
The Megalaima barbets all have medium and low pitched monotonous calls, some of which are characteristic sounds of the rainforest. Some species also utter a rolling trill, which is typical of the genus, varying in pitch and tempo. The Coppersmith Barbet utters a series of evenly spaced metallic wout notes with a resonant quality. Often uttered for about 60 seconds or more which can often be heard on many a hot afternoon in both urban and rural areas.
The Blue-eared Barbet persistently utters a disyllabic high-pitched rattling trill, kri-krik. In addition, a monosyllabic trill, priu, which sounds like a pea in a whistle, is also uttered over long periods.
The monotonous, rapid, and low pitched tehup, tehup, tehup, of the Gold-whiskered Barbet is usually preceded by the genetic trill, whicu in this case is a long trill trrrrrr, repeated on one note, usually for 20 seconds or more, each time more slowly, until it breaks up into three to four note phrases. The Red-throated Barbet also utters a similar trill which is more rapid and higher pitched than that of the Gold-whiskered Barbet. It shortens on repetition but does not break up. Its usual territorial call is an indefinite series of tok notes, tok…tok…tok…tok with irregular gaps.
The Black-browed Barbet’s trisyllabic tok-ka-krrr…is very distinctive. The Yellow-crowned Barbet starts off with a short trill trrr followed immediately by four or five moderately paced tok notes, repeating the whole process many times, trrrr-tok-tok-tok-tok-tok-trrrr.
The Red-crowned Barbet starts off with two tuk notes with a pause and then followed by rapid tuk notes for about tem seconds.
The Golden-throated Barbet’s territorial call is a moderately pitched pi-priu, pi-priu, repeated many times. It also has the typical rolling generic trill.
Finally the Lineated Barbet utters a repeated, monotonous disyllabic po-prrp, with the second note stressed. It also utters the typical generic trill.
Narrowing down identification by habitat
Barbets may be found in a variety of habitat types and knowing the preferred habitat of each species will help one to narrow down a particular species. The Coppersmith Barbet is a denizen of wooded gardens, open country, mangroves, and roadside trees even in the heart of towns and cities where it is often the only species of barbet. The Lineated Barbet frequents coastal scrub, orchards, and coconut groves along much of the east and west coasts. The Yellow-crowned, Red-throated, Red-crowned, Gold-whiskered, and Blue-eared Barbets are primarily inhabitants of primary and mature secondary lowland forest but in the case of the Gold-whiskered and Blue-eared Barbets, may also occur in heavily wooded areas in the suburbs of towns and rural settlements close to the forest; I have found them to be fairly common in the wooded areas of Raub, Pahang. The Black –browed and Fire-tufted Barbets inhabit lower montane forest; the former is most common between 760-1200 m while the latter between 900-1500 m. Within this montane ecotone, the other lowland species of barbets are very rare. Lastly, the Golden-throated Barbet inhabits the higher levels of lower montane forest, above 1300 m, and upper montane forest, above 1400 m, where it is most common, and is the only barbet species foraging in the elfin vegetation of the ericaceous summits and ridge tops.
The field identification of the green plumaged barbets will become a lot easier once bill shapes and sizes, head colour patterns, vocalizations, as well as habitat preferences have been learnt and recognized by observers. Tables 1 and 2 are actually summaries of the main text, but will I hope help as a quick reference for the reader to quickly resolve the many barbet ‘problems’ one tends to face in the field.
- Jeyarajasingam, A, and Pearson, A. 2012. A Field Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore – 2nd Edition: London: Oxford University Press.
- King, B, Woodcock, M, and Dickinson, E.C. 1975. A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia: London: Collins.
- McClure, H.E. 1964. Know Your Barbets Nat. J 18: 45-49.
- Medway, Lord, and Wells, D.R. 1976. The Birds of the Malayu Peninsula Vol V (Conclusion and Survey of Every Species): London and Kuala Lumpur: H, F, and G Witherby & Penerbit Universiti Malaya.
- Myers, S. 2009. A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo: London: New Holland Publishers Ltd.
- Robson, C. 2008. A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia: London: New Holland Publishers Ltd.
- Smythies, B.E. 1999. The Birds of Borneo – 4th Edition: Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications.
- Wells, D.R. 1999. The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula 1: London: Academic Press.
- White, Terry (1984). A Field Guide to the Bird Songs of South-East Asia: London: The British Library National Sound Archive.