Colours of Wildlife: Black-Collared Barbet

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Black-Collared Barbet

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Black-Collared Barbet by Willem

Time for another birdie! This is a Black-Collared Barbet, Lybius torquatus. It's a species I know well and am very fond of. They are very frequent in suburban gardens over here, and a couple have installed themselves in a tree in the yard of the folks living just across the street from me; they're also common in wild areas such as our local game reserve. Yet, I never tire of them! I'm indebted to my friend Gigi Gottwald for the photo I used as reference for this painting.

The Barbets of Africa

What are barbets? The name 'barbet' comes from the beard-like bristles most species have around the bases of their bills. They're a distinct kind of bird; they're related to woodpeckers and in Afrikaans are called 'houtkappers' ('wood choppers') which indeed causes many people here to confuse them. Barbets, like woodpeckers, have specialized feet, with two toes going forward and two going backward. This gives them a good grip for clambering about trees. Yet, barbets are not as specialized for climbing as woodpeckers are, and are seldom seen crawling up and down tree trunks and limbs. They don't have the stiffened tail feathers woodpeckers use to prop themselves up as they clamber. They also don't have woodpeckers' chisel-like bills. Instead, they have a stout, strong bill made for biting. Several species have tooth-like projections along the margins of their bills, as you can see here. The genus Lybius, especially, has prominent 'teeth' of this kind. Barbets do excavate trees, using their bills to bite into the surface and rip wads of wood out, but they generally choose trees with softer wood than woodpeckers do. Fortunately they have many soft-wooded trees available here in South Africa, from aloes to baobabs. Barbets will also often nest in dead trees.

Today, barbets constitute a very successful group of birds in sub-Saharan Africa. They inhabit all environments except the very driest of deserts. The rainforests of central and western Africa contain several species; they're very diverse and abundant in dry woodlands and savannahs; in north-eastern Africa, several species have adapted to semi-desert conditions, feeding on the ground and excavating their nest holes in the soil, or in termite nests. Barbets are rather small birds, ranging from the tinkerbirds, much smaller than a sparrow, to a few forest-living species the size of a large dove or pigeon. Most of them are brightly coloured and/or boldly patterned. They generally feed on fruit, supplemented with insects.

Barbets also occur in other parts of the world: southern and south-eastern Asia, and South America. These are very similar to African barbets, but are presently classified in different families from them. Barbets are also close relatives of the toucans of South and Central America! Indeed, toucans can be seen as barbets who landed on a runaway evolutionary roller-coaster, their bills becoming bigger and bigger until today they're among the largest bills relative to body size of any birds.

Delightful Duettists

Black-collared barbets are especially well-regarded for their singing skills! Actually, their songs are not very intricate musically speaking, consisting of but three notes, repeated many times. But it's the way those songs are performed! A male and female barbet will first call each other and for a while make some harsh wheezing sounds as if they're clearing their throats or tuning their instruments, bobbing and swaying ostentatiously. Then one of them will start. The other joins at once. The first sings the first note, the second immediately follows with the other two notes, and thus they alternate. The call is usually transcribed in English as 'too-puddly-too-puddly-too-puddly …' with the 'too' being sung by the first bird, at a higher pitch than the 'puddly' which is sung by the second. Many people aren't even aware that they're listening to the coordinated musical efforts of two birds – the synchronisation is so perfect that it sounds like just a single bird calling. This feature, called antiphonal duetting, occurs in a few other species of birds here in South Africa, not at all closely related to each other.

Aside from duetting together, male and female black-collared barbets are very strongly bonded, and likely mate for life. Male and female birds look the same, unlike other species where the males are more brightly coloured. They are very territorial, the duet helping them not only to bond, but also to proclaim their ownership of their territory. Barbet territory will be defined by the tree with their nest-hole, and by several large fruiting trees in the vicinity. Wild fig trees, especially, are favoured, most species bearing their nutritious fruits practically year-round.

Breeding barbets assist each other, from excavating the nests to feeding the chicks. Most clutches consist of three or four eggs, but sometimes up to seven. They are sometimes parasitized by honeyguides, whose chicks even kill the baby barbets after they hatch! But barbets do manage to rear enough of their own chicks. They are not endangered; the species inhabits most of northern and north-eastern South Africa, and ranges northward into south-central and east Africa, in a variety of light forest, woodland and wooded savannah habitats. As I said, they're adaptable and frequently live in and around human suburbs.

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