As I am sure you have noticed, our cover picture is a bit out of the ordinary, as we have a beautiful indigenous Barbet on the front of this issue. This photo and some of the others in the article were taken by Louis Bothma, and it inspired us to do an article on keeping and breeding Barbets. Barbets are not a commonly kept species in captivity, although they can be a great aviary subject for those birdkeepers that are keen on softbills and planted aviaries. In South Africa we have 10 species of Barbet and to keep these species in South Africa you will have to apply for a permit, as they are indigenous. Due to this, the exotic Barbets from the rest of Africa and other parts of the world are more appealing aviary subject as no permits are required to keep them.
Description and Range
Large heads, short tails, stocky builds and thick beaks surrounded by bristles at the base have led some to describe barbets as “odd” or even “clumsy-looking”. I prefer “unique”, and in any event the brilliant colours of most make up for any lack of “grace” in their body-plans. The Toucan Barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus), for example, exhibits light and dark blue, black, yellow, copper and bright red in its plumage. The world’s 75-85 barbet species are classified in the order Piciformes, along with toucans (their closest relatives), honey guides and woodpeckers.
Barbets reach their greatest diversity in Africa, where 42 species (family Lybiidae) have been described. Twenty-six species, belonging to the family Magalaimidae, are found in Asia. Most of the 14 species dwelling in Central and South America (family Capitonide) are fantastically coloured. The Toucan Barbets, (family Semnornithidae) are also native to Latin America and only 2 species have been described. Most barbets are birds of forest interiors although some, such as the Coppersmith Barbet, inhabit city parks and gardens.
Barbets do well in planted aviaries, which are generally higher than normal aviaries; a size that works well is 2.5 – 3meters long x 1.5m wide by 2.5 meters high. There are a few important factors when it comes to keeping Barbets in captivity. Firstly, one must understand that these birds are cavity nesters and therefore require logs that they can excavate and turn into their nests. These nests will be used for breeding but it is also vitally important as they will sleep in these nests at night, and if not provided with one there is a chance they could die from the cold on cold nights. Not only this, but their bills are designed to be used and if not given the opportunity to excavate their own nests there is the risk of their bills becoming overgrown in a few years; to avoid this replace the logs at least every two to three years. Sisal logs have proven to be a good option for Barbets and will allow them to carry out their excavation needs. When placing logs in the enclosure for them to make nests the holes can be started, but allow them to do the rest of the excavation. It is also recommended that you place some metal sheeting at the ends of the logs to stop them from excavating right through the ends.
Once the nesting requirements have been met, the next important thing is to ensure that your Barbets have a sense of security in their aviary and this is met by having plants in it. Plants that allow them to hide between the foliage when they feel threatened are ideal. These birds really enjoy hopping around from branch to branch and will often catch any wandering insects in their aviaries. Lots of plants and branches is the ideal for this species and it can be a real joy to watch how they move around their aviary.
Keep in mind that Barbets are best kept in single pairs in aviaries. Do not keep Barbets with other species of Barbets as they will be likely to attack and kill one another. They can be kept in aviaries as pairs with other larger species of softbills such as Turacos.
Although typically thought of as fruit-eaters, many Barbets are skilful hunters and nest-raiders as well. They can be observed capturing skinks, spiders and other animals that venture into their aviaries. Understanding the natural history of the barbets you keep is essential if you are to succeed. Most fare well on a diet comprising a wide variety of fruits, berries, figs and dates. The fruit should be coated with a mixture of softbill food and egg food. Hard-boiled egg and some cooked ground beef should be offered regularly.
Crickets, mealworms and other invertebrates are essential to the health of many species, and are indispensible for pairs with chicks; many also relish chopped pink mice. Increase live food in spring and when there are eggs and chicks in the nest livefood should then be increased substantially. Water for bathing is a must. Food sometimes collects among the bristles at the base of the bill and must be manually removed. Be careful when doing so, as Barbets are capable of inflicting serious wounds with their powerful bills.
If all the necessary requirements are met, Barbets can breed fairly readily in captivity. It is important to make sure to provide them with the correct logs as described above in order for them to make the necessary nest that they will need, in addition to a good quality diet. When looking at breeding any species of Barbet, make sure to study where they occur in the wild and what their natural diet and environment is, and try your best to replicate this in order to achieve the best results.
Hand-rearing Barbet chicks is not too difficult as they are generally are very good feeders. It is important that you offer chicks small quantities of food at regular intervals. Barbet chicks can be raised on a mashed up fruit mix, mealworms, pinky mice and a commercial softbill hand rearing formula.
In conclusion, Barbets are a great addition to a collection for anyone with an interest in softbills. They are active, intelligent birds that are very entertaining to watch in a planted aviary, and they are joy to work with, so I would highly recommend them!
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