The Red-headed Barbet is chubby-looking, big-headed fruit-eater that spreads seeds to “garden” forests from Panama and Colombia to Venezuela and Ecuador.
By Rex Graham
Individual birds visit up to 60 species of trees and bushes. Their quest? Anything ripe, delicious and nutritious. (They provide an insect-supplemented diet to nestlings.) If today’s ripe fruit contains a big seed, no problem – they swallow everything and regurgitate the pit on the go.
Their fruit diet makes them important seed dispersers and forest regenerators. They perform optimally in primary forests with big dead trees in which to excavate nest cavities, or enlarge old woodpecker holes. They are a distant relative of woodpeckers and more closely related to toucans.
Red-headed Barbet ventriloquist
Birdwatching eco-lodges lure this crowd favorite to feeders with fresh-cut melons, apples and other fruit. These feeding stations can be very helpful because Red-headed Barbets tend to be inconspicuous foragers of the forest undergrowth. Their vocalizations don’t help much – they have a “pooodd-ddddrrrrrr” song, which according to Handbook of Birds of the World, is delivered like many other birds with a ventriloquial quality: it can be difficult to identify the direction from which the barbets’ rapid trills are coming from.
Pairs of barbets are often seen in mixed-species flocks led by the Common Bush-tanager and accompanied by Barred Becards, Red-faced Spinetails, Golden-winged Warblers, Flame-throated Warblers and Yellow-thighed Finches. “The barbet and becard changed from one mixed flock to another,” biologists from the University of California, Davis, and Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, reported in The Auk.
Such mixed-species flocks, composed of various groups of are common at all elevations and habitats of the Amazonian lowlands to the high Andes of South America. “These flocks exhibit an extraordinary degree of organization and stability, composed of a highly stable core group of species and a more dynamic component of attendant species,” said Jenny Munoz in her May 2016 master’s thesis at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
In the Manu region of Ecuador, 273 of 550 bird species participated in the mixed-species groups at one time or another. The birds in each flock are fruit-eaters, insectivores, nectar foragers and omnivores. The birds often roost together and continue group-feeding the next morning. Members of a given group that wander off, listen for the group’s calls to rejoin it. The feeding groups, composed of 30 or more birds, forge territorial alliances: one group will squabble with neighboring groups over territory. The mixture of species in one flock battle members of its own species in another.
While the barbets are followers, a few species at the core of each are termed “obligate participants.” They rarely forage alone, even during the breeding season. Munoz said the ubiquity and diversity of the mixed-species flocks, which include roughly 0ne-third of all the bird species in any region, indicated that they are “remarkably important in Neotropical bird communities.”
The San Jorge Eco-Lodges and Botanical Reserves and other birdwatching lodges and tour companies in the Quito, Ecuador region highlight Red-headed Barbets and roughly 1,000 other bird species in the region.
— Rex Graham (@TopBirdingTours) September 13, 2016