Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Prong-billed Barbet

One of the more interesting birds that I encountered on my recent Costa Rica trip were Prong-billed Barbets, Semnornis frantzii. They rather resemble some sort of grosbeak, but are actually quite closely related to toucans.

Prong-billed Barbets occur somewhat sparingly and sporadically on both slopes of Costa Rica; the Caribbean and Pacific. They are found at middle elevation forests, and the birds in the following photos were found on the Caribbean side. Other than Costa Rica, this species occurs only in western Panama.

Tame and confiding, the barbets were very approachable and at times seemed rather curious about us humanoids. Outside of the breeding season, they are gregarious and we saw as many as six or eight together. I was occasionally able to get within 15 feet or so, and watch them as they went about their business of gorging on various tropical fruits, and no doubt eventually dispersing the seeds.

Beautiful Prong-billed Barbet watches me watching him, at Bosque de Paz, Costa Rica. Chunky and grosbeak-like, barbets share the rather tame, deliberate behavior of their close allies the toucans.

Aptly named, the mandible tips of a Prong-billed Barbet's bill terminate in small hooks. The lower has two little prong-like extensions that close neatly around the hook at the tip of the upper mandible. One might think of birds' bills - any bird - as tools that enable the species to better procure food. In the case of this barbet, evolution has shaped an interesting arrangement that allows the barbet to better slice and dice the fruits of various shrubs and trees. While somewhat muted in hue, the soft orangish-brown plumage of these barbets is quite beautiful in an understated way.

A gluttonous Prong-billed Barbet pillages soft fruits from a tree. Note how it has used its bill to efficiently remove the top half of the fruit, thus easily accessing the succulent, juicy pulp within.

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