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American barbets
Eubucco bourcierii.png
Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii)
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Clade: Inopinaves
Clade: Afroaves
Order: Piciformes
Suborder: Pici
Family: Capitonidae
Bonaparte, 1838

American barbets, family Capitonidae, are near passerine birds of the order Piciformes which inhabit humid forests in Central and South America. They are closely related to the toucans.

The American barbets are plump birds, with short necks and large heads. They get their name from the bristles which fringe their heavy bills. Most species are brightly coloured and live in tropical forest.[1]

American barbets are mostly arboreal birds which nest in tree holes dug by breeding pairs, laying 2-4 eggs. They eat fruit and insects. These birds do not migrate.


While most American barbet species inhabit lowland forest, some range into montane and temperate forests as well. Most are restricted to habitats containing trees with dead wood, which are used for nesting.

The diet of barbets is mixed, with fruit being the dominant part of the diet. Small prey items are also taken, especially when nesting. Barbets are capable of shifting their diet quickly in the face of changes in food availability: Numerous species of fruiting tree and bush are visited; an individual barbet may feed on as many as 60 different species in its range. They will also visit plantations and take cultivated fruit and vegetables. Fruit is eaten whole and indigestible material such as seed pits regurgitated later (often before singing). Regurgitation does not usually happen in the nest (as happens with toucans). Like their relatives, American barbets are thought to be important agents in seed dispersal in tropical forests.

As well as taking fruit, they also take arthropod prey, gleaned from the branches and trunks of trees. A wide range of insects are taken, including ants, beetles and moths. Scorpions and centipedes are also taken, and a few species will take small vertebrates such as frogs.

Relationship with humans

American barbets have little impact on humans. The loss of forest can have a deleterious effect on barbet species dependent on old growth, to the benefit of species that favour more disturbed or open habitat.

Three species of American barbets are listed as threatened by the IUCN: The White-mantled Barbet of Colombia is listed as endangered and the Five-coloured Barbet as vulnerable, the two having a relatively small range threatened by deforestation for the timber industry and to create space for agriculture (including coca and marijuana) and livestock, and mining. The quite recently discovered Scarlet-banded Barbet of Peru is considered vulnerable due to its small population size (estimated at under a thousand birds) although its remote habitat is not immediately threatened.

Systematics, taxonomy, and evolution

Fossil American barbets have been found dating from the Miocene in Florida[verification needed]. It is widely agreed that the closest relatives of the barbets are the toucans, and that these two families are also closely related to the honeyguides and woodpeckers (with which they form the order Piciformes).

Formerly the barbets have been treated as one family.[2] However, this has turned out to be paraphyletic with regard to toucans; thus only the American true barbets are retained in the Capitonidae. The African barbets (Lybiidae) and the Asian barbets (Megalaimidae) as well as the two toucan-barbets from America (Semnornithidae) are currently split from this family. Alternatively, the toucans, which evolved from a common ancestor shared with the American barbets, might be included in the traditional all-encompassing barbet family. As they have evolved a suite of characteristics that are unique to themselves they are usually treated separately, and thus the barbets are split up according to the four lineages.


Head patterns, illustration by Keulemans, 1891



  1. ^ Short, Lester L. (1991). Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopaedia of Animals: Birds. London: Merehurst Press. pp. 153–154. ISBN 1-85391-186-0. 
  2. ^ LL Short, JFM Horne (2002) Family Capitonidae (barbets). in del Hoyo J., Elliott A. & Christie D.A. (2004) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 7. Jamacars to Woodpeckers Lynx Edicions, Barcelona ISBN 84-87334-37-7

External links

Sterna diversity.png This article is part of Project Bird Families, a All Birds project that aims to write comprehensive articles on each bird family, including made-up families.
Hemipus picatus.svg This article is part of Project Bird Taxonomy, a All Birds project that aims to write comprehensive articles on every order, family and other taxonomic rank related to birds.
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