a web page by Don Roberson
ASIAN BARBETS Megalaimidae
  • 34 species in south and southeastern Asia
  • DR personal total: 20 species (58%), 5 photo'd

The Asian barbets are chunky, mostly mid-sized, often colorful, and vocal birds of the Oriental tropics. These barbets hard to see but easy to hear — their calls can dominate the aural landscape.

Watch and listen to Rita's video of this male using its gular sac to produce its territorial call via this link, or click on
Rita's video-cap photo to the right

Among them are a highly-sought endemics. There are 9 barbets on Borneo, but 3 are endemics in the mountains. Despite two trips and hearing all three, I've managed to see just one — the striking Golden-naped Barbet (left and below).

In 2003 my wife Rita Carratello obtained video of a territorial Golden-naped on Mt. Kinabalu showing a male vibrated a bulging air-sac on its neck when it gave its strident, hollow took-took-tarrroook calls over and over again. This behavior, recalling the neck sacs of booming grouse, was seemingly overlook in the literature (e.g., Short & Horne 2002) until Lim et al. (2009) published an illustrated paper on this behavior in Blue-eared Barbet Megalaima pulcherrima, and Rita and I published our observations of this Golden-naped Barbet (Roberson & Carratello 2009).


The perched Blue-throated Barbet (above) is so still and matches the foliage so well that it illustrates just how hard many Asian Barbets can be to locate in the canopy — even if you know the "right" part of the tree to search. It may then require a scope to see all the complicated color patterns on the head (right — sam photo enlarged). A very small yellow patch above the red forecrown helps to identify this as the nominate race of Blue-throated Barbet

There are some larger, big-billed species, such as Gold-whiskered Barbet (left), that do occasionally perch atop a bare snag — but I've only seen these at quite a distance (as here in Sumatra).

The Great Barbet Psilopogon virens of the Himalayan forests is much larger than others in this family. At 273 grams it is more than 7 times heavier than the Crimson-throated Barbet P. rubricapilla of Sri Lanka.

Another large and spectacular barbet is Fire-tufted Barbet P. pyrolophus of Malaya and Sumatra (left in a fabulous shot by Hideo Tani). Fire-tufted Barbet is a striking bird that has a vague resemblance to Toucan-Barbet of the New World. It is quite distinct from other Asian barbets by its graduated tail and its facial bristles in distinct nasal tufts.

The call of the Coppersmith Barbet (right; at a nest hole), for example, is a dominant sound of Asian woodlands. In some tracts of woods the "hammering" sound of these barbets (thought to recall a coppersmith at his trade) is present dawn to dusk. Nest holes, like this one, are excavated in rotten trees. The 2-5 eggs will be incubated for about two weeks; thereafter both parents care for the young. The zygodactyl feet (two toes forward, two backward) are adapted for clinging to trees, like woodpeckers, but unlike them the tail feathers are not stiffened. Coppersmith Barbet is by far the most widely distributed Asian barbet, occurring from India to Indonesia and the Philippines. It is also the only non-forest barbet in Asia.

Recent molecular studies (den Tex & Leonard 2014) found that Coppersmith Barbet occurs in two well-differentiated and allopatrically distributed color morphs: a red-headed and a yellow-headed form (the photo is of a red-morph type in the Philippines). The red morphs formed two clades within the diversity of yellow ones. The study suggests that the species originated in SE Asia/Sundaland and then colonized the Philippines from the south in the mid-Pleistocene, via a now-extinct population on Borneo. More recently, Coppersmith Barbets colonized India and Sri Lanka. They were also likely distributed on the Malay Peninsula but went extinct there too. The population that now inhabits that region is a natural re-colonization of yellow-morph birds about 80 years ago. As a "red morph evolved at least twice independently from yellow morphs in the late Pleistocene, it seems that this change does not require very many mutational steps, and thus can arise relatively frequently, on an evolutionary timescale" (den Tex & Leonard 2014).

At one time all but two of the Asian barbets are consigned to the genus Megalaima. Recent molecular research showed that genus Psilopogon was embedded within the clade, and it had priority. Now, all but two species are assigned to that genus Psilopogon. The one shown here (right) is Brown-headed Barbet of the Indian subcontinent.

The exceptions are Brown Barbet Calorhamphus fuliginosus of Borneo and Sooty Barbet C. hayii of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. Both are dull-colored, uniformly brown species that nests colonially; it also lacks the vocal repertoire of boops and trills of other Asian barbets, giving only a wheezy whistle (Short & Horne 2001). Prum (1988) and Barker & Lanyon (2000) initially found that molecular evidence did not group Brown Barbet with other Asian barbets. Short & Horne (2002) used with evidence as a "major stumbling block for those who would recognize three barbet families, one for each continent" (see below). But Moyle (2004) used three different molecular methods and undertook three different types of analysis, and showed flaws in the early studies. A mis-choice of analytical methods (e.g., parsimony alone) has the tendency "to unite taxa on long branches even when not closely related." It appears that Brown Barbet does, indeed, group with other Asian barbets, thus removing the "stumbling block" to our family arrangement here.

The remaining Asian barbets require tracts of extensive habitat, from jungle to swamps, and pristine forests from steaming lowlands to montane cloud forests. Asian barbets are important components of the tropical forests of the Orient. They provide, in good measure, the "sound track" of these jungles. They widely disperse seeds and pollen as they eat fruit, catkins, and flowers, and their used nesting holes can be used by other creatures. Tropical barbets are decline with the loss of lowland and montane forests. Of particular concern for barbets is the intensity of the human need for dead wood, the removal of which eliminates nesting sites. Even selective logging in southern Asia removes host trees of strangling fits, and thus the figs themselves, a primary barbet food (Short & Horne 2002). Pressure from the cage-bird trade is another problem in some areas; Fire-tufted Barbet is a particularly desired. We can only hope that the Asian barbets and their diversity will survive man's pressure on their habitats. Here (below) is a Lineated Barbet in his habitat — a lowland forest in southern Asia.

Photos: Rita Carratello videotaped the vocalizing Golden-naped Barbet Psilopogon pulcherrima in July 2003 on Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo; I took the photo (of a different bird) that same day. The Blue-throated Barbet P. asiatica was at Kaeng Krachan NP, Thailand, on 23 Dec 2012. The Gold-whiskered Barbet P. chrysopogon at was at Ketambe, w. Sumatra, Indonesia, on 18 Aug 1988. Hideo Tani photographed the Fire-tufted Barbet P. pyrolophus at Frasers Hill, Malaysia, in Feb 2003. The Coppersmith Barbet P. haemacephala was was at its nest hole near Bislig, Mindanao, Philippines, in March 1990.. The Brown-headed Barbet P. zeylanica was at Ramnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India, on 13 Mar 2001. The Lineated Barbet P. lineatus was at Wat Khao Look Chang, Thailand, on 24 Dec 2012.
Photos © Don Roberson and Hideo Tani, as credited; used with permission, all rights reserved.

Photos of over 4000 species by Hideo Tani can be seen on his web site.

Family Book: Rating:
Short, L. L., and J.F.M. Horne. 2001. Toucans, Barbets, and Honeyguides. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

I confess that I don't own this book, nor have I done more that quickly glance through it in a bookstore. Yet every one of the Oxford University Press series on bird families has been excellent, and this looks equally solid. I presume that the "meat" of this book has been summarized by the same authors in their Handbook of the Birds of the World series (Short & Horne 2002) which I do own and have studied. Consistent with Oxford books in this series, the introductory material is extensive and the species accounts thorough. Plates and illustrations enliven and enhance the text. If I have any quibble, it is with the conservative approach to family level taxonomy but, then again, this was written before the molecular studies by Johansson et al. (2001) and Moyle (2004).

Literature cited:

  • Barker, F.K., and S.M. Lanyon. 2000. The impact of parsimony weighting schemes on inferred relationships among toucans and Neotropical barbets (Aves: Piciformes). Mol. Phylog. Evol. 15: 215-234.
  • Burton, P.J.K. 1984. Anatomy and evolution of the feeding apparatus in the avian orders Coraciiformes and Piciformes. Bull. Brit. Mus. (Nat. Hist.) 47: 331-441.
  • den Tex, R-J., and J.A. Leonard. 2014. The phylogeography of red and yellow coppersmith barbets (Aves: Megalaima haemacephala). Front. Ecol. Evol. fevo.2014.00016; doi: 10.3389
  • Johansson, U.S., T.J. Parsons, M. Irestedt, and P.G.P. Ericson. 2001. Clades within "higher land birds," evaluated by nuclear DNA sequences. J. Zool. Syst. Evol. Research 39: 37-51
  • Lanyon, S.M., and J.G. Hall. 1994. Re-examination of barbet monophyly using mitochondrial-DNA sequence data. Auk 111: 389-397.
  • Lim, A.T.H., L.K. Wang, and Y.C. Wee. 2009. The Blue-eared Barbet Megalaima australis and its gular sac. Birding Asia 11: 98-101.
  • Moyle, R.G. 2004. Phylogenetics of barbets (Aves: Piciformes) based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence data. Mol. Phylog. Evol. 30: 187-200.
  • Prum, R.O. 1988. Phylogenetic interrelationships of the barbets (Aves: Capitonidae) and toucans (Aves: Ramphastidae) based on morphology with comparisons to DNA-DNA hybridization. Zool. J. Linnaean Soc. 92: 313-343.
  • Roberson, D., and R. Carratello. 2009. Gular sac use by Golden-naped Barbet. Birding Asia 12: 13.
  • Short, L.L., and J.F.M. Horne. 2002. Family Capitonidae (Barbets), pp. 140-219 in Del Hoyo, J. Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J. eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.



  A barbet page was created 20 Mar 1999; revised 23 June 2001, 7 Sep 2004 and 19-20 Mar 2015  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved