AMERICAN BARBETS  Capitonidae
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 dead 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). I find these two shots by Arthur Grosset so evocative of my own visit several years ago. The fruiting trees change with the seasons, but when one is found, oh the joy of watching what appears 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 somewhat 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. Recent molecular evidence has proven that New World barbets, toucans, and these 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, there are several different taxonomic approaches. The Handbook of the Birds of the World (Short & Horne 2002) sticks with the traditional approach of two families: all the barbets (including the toucan-barbets) in a barbet family and the toucans in a toucan family. They argue that it is easy to tell whether any bird in the group is a barbet or a toucan, and that the barbets are ecological counterparts on each of the three major tropical continents. This is true enough, but it is a bit like sticking your head in the ground to avoid the new evidence of relationships. I prefer a more modern approach, now adopted by the South American Checklist Committee. They treat the two groups of Old Word barbets as two separate families, Asian Barbets [Megalaimidae] and African Barbets [Lybiidae], and then separate the three New World groups into separate families as well: New World Barbets [Capitonidae], Toucan-Barbets [Semnornithidae] and Toucans [Ramphastidae]. You can reach my pages on each of these families as follows:

ASIAN BARBETS
AFRICAN BARBETS
TOUCAN-BARBETS
TOUCANS
A number of American barbets are scare and local, or little-known. When I was just getting into birding, an important mentor to me was then graduate student at U.C. Berkeley J. Van Remsen (now Head of Ornithology at Louisiana State University and an important member of many professional committees, including the A.O.U. Checklist committee). Van was then young, enthusiastic, and I thought he was brilliant. 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.

I went with a group led by Van to Colombia in 1975 and saw the Lemon-throated Barbet (left in a photo from that trip by John Luther). Today, of course, you can find great field guide art of this species in several places, including the Guy Tudor painting in Hilty & Brown's (1986) Colombia field guide. But back then the 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 you guessed it Lemon-throated Barbet.


Even more incredible was the very recent (1996) discovery of a truly spectacular barbet, previously unknown to science, in the Andes of eastern Peru. It has just been described as the Scarlet-banded Barbet Capito wallacei (O'Neill et al. 2000; the painting shown at right graced the cover of The Auk). 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. It is currently known only from the cloud forest at 1450m (4750') on one mountain near the headwaters of the Rio Cushabatay, Peru. 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.
 

Photos: 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. The Lemon-throated Barbet Eubucco richardsoni was photographed 20 July 1975 at Pobre Allegre, on the Javarí River, Peru, by John S. Luther. Daniel Lane painted the Scarlet-banded Barbet Capito wallacei; from the cover of The Auk, vol. 117, no. 3 (July 2000) . Photos © Arthur Grosset, Don Roberson, and John S. Luther, as credited, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Many more excellent Arthur Grosset photos are on his web page; he particularly features South America.

Use this link to Rio Cristalino Lodge for information on this fabulous place.

Family Book

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

I must confess that I don't actually own this book, nor have I done more that quickly glance through it in a bookstore. But every one of the Oxford Univ. 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 more than adequately 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:
American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-List of North American Birds. 7th ed. A.O.U., Washington, D.C.

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.

Dickinson, E.C., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Fry, C.H., S. Keith, and E.K. Urban, eds. 1988. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 3. Academic Press, London.

Hilty, S.L., and W.L. Brown. 1986. A Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Johansson, U.S., and P. G.P. Ericson. 2003. Molecular support for a sister group relationship between Pici and Glabulae (Piciformes sensu Wetmore 1960). J. Avian Biology 34: 185-197.

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. Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution 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.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sick, H. 1993. Birds in Brazil: a Natural History. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

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A barbet page was created 20 Mar 1999; signficantly revised 23 June 2001, and this page redesigned 28 Sep 2004