In Our Backyard Environment

This bird can walk up a tree, hunting for insects

Brown-headed Barbet

Brown-headed Barbet   | Photo Credit: Abhishek Gulshan

The Brown-headed Barbet makes itself heard, especially during mating season

We’ve got so used to the call of the Brown-headed Barbet (Psilopogon zeylanicus) that we don’t even notice it anymore. It is, in fact, one of the most familiar sounds of India: loud and monotonous through the year, and most persistent from January to June — from the start of ‘developing bonds’ with the other sex to the nesting period.

The species often engages in a sort of ‘follow the leader’ calling, where others take up the call when one starts. It begins with a harsh sort of laugh, followed by tur-r-r-r kutur-kotur-kotur. While trying to pair up, the bird usually stations itself almost at the top of a tree and calls out loud, incessantly.

The sexes look alike, with an overall green resonating with most Barbets of the world. Adults are about 27 cm long and have a streaked brown head (hence the name). Its neck and breast are also brown, with white speckles on the shoulders.

Barbets are invariably mistaken to be woodpeckers, as they have similar characteristics. They both have cavity-nesting behaviour, the ability to walk vertically up and down the trunk and branches, and wood-pecking behaviour for making holes (for nesting) and sometimes drumming on the trunk for insects.

If you see a hole in a tree and think, ‘Ah, woodpecker’, know that there are a lot of other birds that nest in tree cavities and are referred to as cavity-nesters.

It feeds chiefly on the fruit of wild fig trees, such as the banyan and peepul, essential components of our city gardens. This makes the Brown-headed Barbet one of the most common birds around us. They are primarily frugivores (fruit eaters), but are often observed feeding on insects, which they also feed their young ones with, to meet their body protein requirement.

The species is purely arboreal, living high from the ground in heavy foliage, making it hard to spot. Thus, like several other birds in India, this Barbet is exceedingly well known to many people only by sound and not by sight. Considering their strict arboreal nature and their green plumage, they blend most naturally with leaves, and their curious flesh-coloured beak and yellow eye patch resembles berries, a camouflaging characteristic which helps them evade imminent risks.

In times of danger, they remain still and silent. The flight between trees is silent too, strong and undulating, with a smooth rising and falling form, which furthermore helps them in avoiding danger.

Their eggs are usually laid in March and April, in chambers excavated by both parents in one of the larger branches of soft-wooded trees (such as banyan) with a short neatly cut tunnel as entrance.

Once the eggs are laid, both males and females take turns in incubating them. The parents are also very particular about keeping the nest clean by ridding it of excreta regularly. They do experience competition from other birds like Parakeets and Mynas for nesting space, so they aggressively defend their turf.

In all, the species is fairly tolerant to the presence of humans around them, and have adapted rather well to urban life.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 12:56:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/the-brown-headed-barbet-a-loud-bird-that-walks-up-a-tree-for-insects/article30635134.ece

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