You are here

The Great Himalayan Barbet

Barbets may be described as woodpeckers that are trying to become toucans. The most toucan-like of them all is the great Himalayan barbet (Megalæma marshallorum). Barbets are heavily-built birds of medium size, armed with formidable beaks, which they do not hesitate to use for aggressive purposes. As regards the nests they excavate, the eggs they lay, the pad that grows on the hocks of young birds, and their flight, they resemble their cousins the woodpeckers. But they are fruit-eating birds, and not insectivorous; it is this that constitutes the chief difference between them and the woodpeckers. Barbets are found throughout the tropical world. A number of species occur in India. The best known of these is the coppersmith, or crimson-breasted barbet (Xantholæma hæmatocephala), the little green fiend, gaudily painted about the head, which makes the hot weather in India seem worse than it really is by filling the welkin with the eternal monotone that resembles the sound of a hammer on a brazen vessel. Nearly as widely distributed are the various species of green barbet (Thereiceryx), whose call is scarcely less exasperating than that of the coppersmith, and may be described as the word kutur shouted many times and usually preceded by a harsh laugh or cackle.

The finest of all the barbets are the Megalæmas. The great Himalayan barbet attains a length of 13 inches. There is no lack of colour in its plumage. The head and neck are a rich violet blue. The upper back is brownish olive with pale green longitudinal streaks. The lower back and the tail are bright green. The wings are green washed with blue, brown, and yellow. The upper breast is brown, and the remainder of the lower plumage, with the exception of a scarlet patch of feathers under the tail, is yellow with a blue band running along the middle line. This bright red patch under the tail is not uncommon in the bird world, and, curiously enough, it occurs in birds in no way related to one another and having little or nothing in common as regards habits. It is seen in many bulbuls, robins, and woodpeckers, and in the pitta. The existence of these red under tail-coverts in such diverse species can, I think, be explained only on the hypothesis that there is an inherent tendency to variation in this direction in many species.

A striking feature of the great Himalayan barbet is its massive yellow bill, which is as large as that of some species of toucan. Although the bird displays a number of brilliant colours, it is not at all easy to distinguish from its leafy surroundings. It is one of those birds which are heard more often than seen.

Barbets are never so happy as when listening to their own voices. Most birds sing and make a joyful noise only at the nesting season. Not so the barbets; they call all the year round; even unfledged nestlings raise up the voices of infantile squeakiness.

The call of the great Himalayan barbet is very distinctive and easy to recognise, but is far from easy to portray in words. Jerdon described the call as a plaintive pi-o, pi-o. Hutton speaks of it as hoo-hoo-hoo. Scully syllabises it as till-low, till-low, till-low. Perhaps the best description of the note is that it is a mournful wailing, pee-yu, pee-yu, pee-yu. Some like the note, and consider it both striking and pleasant. Others would leave out the second adjective. Not a few regard the cry as the reverse of pleasant, and consider the bird a nuisance. As the bird is always on the move--its call at one moment ascends from the depths of a leafy valley and at the next emanates from a tree on the summit of some hill--the note does not get on one's nerves as that of the coppersmith does. Whether men like its note or not, they all agree that it is plaintive and wailing. This, too, is the opinion of hillmen, some of whom declare that the souls of men who have suffered injuries in the Law Courts, and who have in consequence died of broken hearts, transmigrate into the great Himalayan barbets, and that is why these birds wail unceasingly un-nee-ow, un-nee-ow, which means "injustice, injustice." Obviously, the hillmen have not a high opinion of our Law Courts!

Himalayan barbets go about in small flocks, the members of which call out in chorus. They keep to the top of high trees, where, as has been said, they are not easily distinguished from the foliage. When perched they have a curious habit of wagging the tail from side to side, as a dog does, but with a jerky, mechanical movement. Their flight is noisy and undulating, like that of a woodpecker. They are said to subsist exclusively on fruit. This is an assertion which I feel inclined to challenge. In the first place, the species remains in the Himalayas all the year round, and fruit must be very scarce there in winter. Moreover, Mr. S. M. Townsend records that a barbet kept by him in captivity on one occasion devoured with gusto a dead mouse that had been placed in its cage. Barbets nest in cavities in the trunks of trees, which they themselves excavate with their powerful beaks, after the manner of woodpeckers. The entrance to the nest cavity is a neat circular hole in a tree at heights varying from 15 to 50 feet. Most birds which rear their broods in holes enter and leave the nest cavity fearlessly, even when they know they are being watched by human beings, evidently feeling that their eggs or young birds are securely hidden away in the heart of the tree. Not so the Megalæma. It is as nervous about the site of its nest as a lapwing is. Nevertheless, on one occasion, when the nest of a pair of the great Himalayan barbets was opened out and found to contain an egg and a young bird, which latter was left unmolested, the parent birds continued to feed the young one, notwithstanding the fact that the nest had been so greatly damaged. The eggs are white, like those of all species which habitually nest in holes.