Wondernose: What bird is named for its beard?

by Rebecca Martin | Sep 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Coppersmith Barbets
Coppersmith Barbets. Photo © Dreamstime.com.

You might think our mystery bird’s name will start with the word “bearded”—as in “Bearded Warbler” or “Bearded Flycatcher.” But no, our bird’s name is actually the French word for beard. You protest, Wondernose, that you don’t know French. Okay, but let’s start looking at these birds. For all we know, you’ve heard of them but didn’t know that the name means “beard.”

Why the beard name? Because around this bird’s nostrils you will see tufts of feathers, and there are also some bristles in the area of the chin.

In a number of ways, our bird is like a woodpecker. One is the big strong, sharp bill. Like the woodpecker, our bird uses its bill to excavate dwelling holes in trees. However, woodpeckers are stronger drillers than our mystery bird, which chooses only dead, rotted tree trunks to peck at. Also, our bird’s technique is more a biting than a chiseling. It will carry away the chips, too. As you well know, Wondernose, wherever a woodpecker has been at work, there’s a pile of trash on the ground. But our mystery bird cleans up after itself!

Here’s another similarity between the two birds—the toe formation. Can you describe a woodpecker’s toes, Wondernose? That’s right—two toes forward, two toes back. However, our mystery bird isn’t nearly as much of a climber. It mostly hops and walks about on the branches. In the very tops of the trees is where they most like to be. Because it stays so well hidden, our bird is truly a mystery bird.

It’s a wonder these birds can hide so well, because they are gaudily colored. There are more than seventy-five species, and some of them have the oddest color combinations. For instance, one of them has patches of yellow, lavender, red, and green.

No, these birds are not parrots. I don’t blame you for asking, because they certainly rival parrots in color. And I did say they have stout bills, though they are definitely not as stout as the parrot’s.

You don’t think you’ll be able to guess what the French word for beard is? Well, okay, our mystery bird’s name is barbet. They are birds of the Tropics, found only in South America and in the tropical parts of Africa and Asia.

The best-known American kinds are the Toucan Barbet and the Prongbilled Barbet. The Toucan Barbets are certainly colorful. They have gray throats, dark gray wings, a red breast, a golden back and rump, and a black tail. These starling-sized birds are among the largest barbets. The smallest species are only a little over three inches.

Despite the barbet’s gaudy appearance, some people don’t like them at all. You wonder why not? It’s because of their song. Or maybe I should say, their lack of a song. Some species, such as the Asian Coppersmith Barbet and the African tinkerbirds, have a monotonous, oft-repeated call that sounds like a hammer striking metal. Let’s try to imagine it: bonk—bonk—bonk—on and on, for long periods of time. I believe we would get tired of it. Some folks in the Tropics hate the noise so much that they call the barbets “brain-fever birds.”

Another reason some farmers don’t like barbets is because their main diet is fruit. A flock of barbets can do a lot of damage in an orchard.

Some of the barbets do eat insects. In Africa there is one called the Red-fronted Barbet. Its favorite food is termites. With its strong beak, the Red-fronted Barbet will chip away at the termites’ nest until it can access the insects inside.

In Africa, one of the barbet’s chief enemies is a bird called the honeyguide. You wouldn’t think a honeyguide would do anything cruel, with such a nice name. But they are quite crafty. Apparently they prefer to let other birds raise their children for them. A honeyguide will lay one egg in a barbet’s nest, and, since honeyguide eggs develop fast, it will hatch before the barbet’s. The new chick has sharp tips on its beak which it uses to destroy the other eggs.

Now the honeyguide chick has the barbet parents all to itself. And, strangely enough, the barbets will take good care of it. You ask whether they don’t realize it’s not their own chick, Wondernose? That’s a question I can’t answer. But they do tend the intruder well. One barbet was even kind enough to enlarge its nesting area because the honeyguide chick was getting too big for it!

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