Feeding ecology and diet

Barbets are fruit eaters, but their growing chicks require high protein diets and are fed almost exclusively insects. Barbets have an important role in seed dispersal (although some species regurgitate pellets of undigested seeds from fruit, and then eat them again). In dense forest, there would be little chance of a seed being carried far by wind, or rolling more than several feet along the ground. To get far beyond the parent tree, it is best eaten by a barbet and ejected in a neat package of fertilizer from some far-off perch. Rich, evergreen, tropical forests have many species of fruiting trees, shrubs, and vines that flower and fruit at different times of the year; hence, barbets have a good food source all year round in sizeable forests (but this may become limited or disrupted in areas where forests are cleared or remain only in small patches). In Thailand as many as 100 blue-eared barbets (Megalaima australis) may gather at a single large, fruiting tree, breaking down their normal territories to feed on a temporary abundance of food that is sufficient for all. African barbets have been known to feed on at least 50 different genera of plants, mostly eating fruit but in some cases also taking nectar or blossoms. Figs are especially important food trees in both Africa and Asia and also supply fruits to South American barbets. Cultivated papayas, mangos, bananas, peppers, and avocados are also eaten, probably where natural foods have been reduced by human activity. Usually it is the larger species of barbets that dominate a fruiting tree where several species gather together.

Large fruits are naturally taken only by larger species that are big enough to swallow them. These take longer to digest than smaller food, and a barbet that has eaten some large fruits may then rest for an hour or more while its meal is digested. The red-headed barbet (Eubucco bourcierii) eats flower spikes along with the many insect larvae that find temporary refuge within them, while black-spotted barbets (Capito niger) and several other species, including the scarlet-hooded barbet (E. tucinkae) take both flowers and nectar. African barbets are the most persistently insectivorous species within the family: red-and-yellow barbets (Trachyphonus erythrocephalus) will eat almost anything that they can find, including scraps of food put out for them (eagerly taking milk, cereals, meat, bread, and fruit). Snails, worms, lizards, spiders, centipedes, even birds' eggs and young birds are eaten by some African species, as well as the many large insects that abound at certain times. Some even have special "anvils" where they remove the wings of large prey such as locusts. Asian barbets likewise take insects when breeding, but fewer at other times; some also eat birds' eggs, lizards, and centipedes. Several species dig into bark to find beetle larvae and into termite mounds to reach termites. Flying ants and termites are also caught on the wing in quite proficient flycatching sallies from a perch.

At least one South American barbet, the spot-crowned barbet (Capito maculicoronatus), follows swarms of army ants and eats insects that these fearsome columns flush out of hiding places, although it is not a constant companion of the ants in the same way that some woodcreepers and antbirds are, the "professional" followers of ant swarms. Others in this genus tap on bark to stir up insects while birds of the genus Eubucco specialize in foraging among clusters of dead leaves, searching out insects and other small invertebrates that seek food and safety in the brittle bunches. Several of these small barbets join mixed flocks of birds that roam around the forest, eating insects as well as fruit as they move through the treetops.

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