(This article first appeared on http://10000birds.com)
Barbets are a group of medium sized, chunky, generally colorful, frugivorous, hole-nesting near-passerines, that are popular targets for anyone birding in the tropics. They occur in three biogeographic regions: the Neotropic, Afrotropic and Indo-Malaya ecozones, basically tropical South and Central America, Africa – south of the Sahara and tropical Asia. Originally they were all placed in the family Capitonidae, but over time taxonomists have determined that actual relationships between these barbets are far more complex. In the Neotropics, the barbets have been placed into two families, the original Capitonidae (New World Barbets) with 14 species and Semnornithidae (Toucan Barbets) with 2 species (Toucan and Prong-billed Barbet). These American barbets are now considered more closely related to Toucans than they are to the barbets of other continents. In Asia, their 30 barbet species are placed into their own family Megalaimidae, and finally, in Africa, we have 42 species in the family Lybiidae, the topic of this blogpost.
African barbets are classified in seven quite distinctive genera: Pogoniulus are the smallest, and the 10 species in this genus are now called Tinkerbirds due to their incessant tooting calls sounding like a miniature tinsmith or tinker hammering away. They are generally cryptic species and despite frequent extended bouts of calling, their ventriloquial skills make them tricky to locate. Most species live in the rainforest zone – notably the largest: Red-rumped and the plainest: Speckled, which sounds like a Common Quail emanating from the rainforest canopy! Others, such as Yellow-fronted and Red-fronted extend into the savanna zone and are best located by staking out a fruiting tree. White-chested Tinkerbird is one of Africa’s avian mysteries, known only from a single specimen collected in 1964 at Mayau in north-west Zambia, close to the borders of Angola and the DRC. This remote region of Cryptosepalum forests is little changed by human hands (somewhat of a rarity in these times of devastating habitat destruction) yet this species has not been relocated despite extensive searches by birders (including myself). This has led some ornithologists to consider the specimen a hybrid of two other tinkerbirds, time will undoubtedly tell! Interestingly, this species was named Pogoniulus makawai after its discoverer, a local man named Jali Makawa, who was employed by ornithologist C.W. Benson to collect birds. It is seldom that indigenous people are honored in this way.