a web page by Don Roberson
  • 14 species in the Neotropics
  • DR personal total: 10 species (71%), 2 photo'd

The New World barbets are among the most gorgeous birds of South American forests. Yet some are so local and restricted to isolated habitats that they were first discovered to science in my lifetime. One of these is the truly spectacular Scarlet-banded Barbet (left), discovered in 1996 in cloud forest near the headwaters of the Rio Cushabatay, Peru (O'Neill et al. 2000). Crisply arrayed in striking patterns of deep scarlet, bright yellow, forest green, black and white, it may be the most impressive barbet of them all.

In 2004 I wrote, in an earlier version of this page: "It is currently known only from the cloud forest on one mountain at 1450m (4750'). There have been follow-up birding expeditions that have refound it but not without difficulties of near-biblical proportions! I list it among my "top 50" best birds in the world, but I strongly suspect I'll never make it to the remote location to try for this one." Those difficulties included a river boat trip, camping in remote rain forest, and a steep hike.

In 2010 another population of Scarlet-banded Barbet was discovered in the Cordillera Azul, about 50 mi southwest of the original location, and again in cloud forest 1400-1600m (~4500-5500'). But this time there was a road that went to the site — one could drive there! Or at least that's what I had heard. We tried this in Nov 2014. One can be driven there by an experienced driver in a modified high-centered Toyota truck — if one is willing to contend with 6-8 hours of a bouncing truck in thick mud, and getting stuck multiple times. In our case, it took 11 hours from the end of pavement to reach Flor de Café in the middle of the night (right). Our barbet was found the next day (photo above).

A number of American barbets are scare or local or little-known. When I was just getting into birding in the 1970s, an important mentor to me was then a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley, J. Van Remsen (now at Louisiana State University). Van was then young and enthusiastic; for a Ph.D. thesis he chose field work on the Amazon River at Leticia, Colombia. When Van came back to the Bay Area after his first field season (circa 1974, a time when there were very few field guides to South America) I asked Van what was the most spectacular bird he had encountered in the Amazon Basin rainforest that was not pictured in any field guide. His answer, after some thought, was the Lemon-throated Barbet. Today, of course, you can find lots of field guide art of this species but back there was nothing. That barbet was an astonishing package of bright yellow, deep scarlet, deep black and rich green hopping in the canopy of the dense jungle. What a treat!
  Interestingly enough, in more recent years Van Remsen and some of his students studied the stomach contents of ten species of New World barbets, plus toucans, trogons, and motmots (Remsen et al. 1993). The predominant condition for most species of American barbet was that the stomach contents were fruit only, although these barbets eat a lot more arthropods than related species (e.g., both toucans and toucan-barbets eat more fruit than do New World barbets). One species, however, bucked the trend and had more vertebrate and arthropod matter in its stomach than fruit. It was our friend the Lemon-throated Barbet.

One of the most perfect spots in South America is Rio Cristalino Lodge. In the heart of an almost untouched virgin rain-forest in the center of Amazonian Brazil, this incredible lodge has it all. Everything one could want in a Neotropical jungle is here: jaguars, tapirs, huge curassows, a black-water stream in which you can swim, and an abundance of birds and butterflies. Among the birds, none are more striking than the toucans and barbets that come to fruiting trees in the forest, and among those is Black-girdled Barbet (above). It is a species that relies heavily on fruit, and is thus found where the trees are fruiting. I find these two shots by Arthur Grosset evocative of my own visit several years ago. The fruiting trees change with the seasons, but when one is found, the joy is in watching birds or mammals arrive to eat the small but abundant fruits. Usually the views are of birds way up in the canopy, so these shots are particularly impressive.

My own photographic efforts in Neotropical forests have been limited and rather poor. I have this distant shot of a male Red-headed Barbet (right) at its nest tree; he and his mate were excavating and enlarging a hole in this dead tree in western Ecuador. This species is very sexually dimorphic, and the female is much less colorful than the male. Like other barbets in the tropics around the world the American Barbets excavate holes in which they lay eggs. They also have zygodactyl feet (two toes forward, two backwards) for clinging to trees (Short & Horne 2001).

Barbets are found in tropical forests around the globe. Molecular evidence has shown that New World barbets, toucans, and two birds in Semnornis (e.g., the toucan-barbets) are more closely related to each other than they are to Old World barbets (Burton 1984, Prum 1988, Sibley and Ahlquist 1990, Lanyon & Hall 1994, Barker & Lanyon 2000, Johansson et al. 2001, Johansson & Ericson 2003, Moyle 2004). Given the evidence that toucans are actually 'big-billed New World barbets' when compared to barbets in the Old World, most authorities (including the South American checklist committee) consider the set to represent five separate families: Asian Barbets [Megalaimidae] African Barbets [Lybiidae], New World Barbets [Capitonidae], Toucan-Barbets [Semnornithidae], and Toucans [Ramphastidae].

Photos: Photos: The Scarlet-banded Barbet Capito wallacei was photographed at Flor de Café, Peru, on 16 Nov 2014. Arthur Grosset photographed the Black-girdled Barbet Capito dayi at a fruiting tree in the canopy at Rio Cristalino Lodge, Brazil, in 2003. The Red-headed Barbet Eubucco bourcierii was at the Rio Palenque reserve, Ecuador, 4 Oct 1989.
Photos © Arthur Grosset and Don Roberson, used with permission, all rights reserved. Many more fine Arthur Grosset photos are on his web page.

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). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 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. (Natural History) 47: 331-441.
  • 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.
  • Moyle, R.G. 2004. Phylogenetics of barbets (Aves: Piciformes) based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence data. Mol. Phylog. Evol. 30: 187-200.
  • O'Neill, J.P., D.F. Lane, A. W. Kratter, A.P. Capparella, and C.F. Joo. 2000. A striking new species of barbet (Capitoninae: Capito) from the eastern Andes of Peru. Auk 117: 569-577.
  • 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.
  • Remsen, J.V., Jr., M.A. Hyde, and A. Chapman. 1993. The diets of neotropical trogons, motmots, barbets and toucans. Condor 95: 178-192.
  • 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.
  • Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.



  A barbet page was created 20 Mar 1999 but significantly revised 23 June 2001, redesigned 28 Sep 2004, and again revised 19 Feb 2015  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved