The bulbul diet spans the range of fruits and berries to insects and other arthropods, as well as small vertebrates such as frogs, snakes, and lizards. A few eat nectar and pollen. The jaw apparatus of Pycnonotids is rather generalized compared to other Passeriform birds, and while some Pycnonotids eat mainly fruit or insects, most can and do have a mixed diet. This flexibility may be critical during the dry season: since most bulbuls are non-migratory, they must take advantage of the food sources available within in their range, which can mean shifting to feeding on more plant matter when insects are not as abundant.
Among Phyllastrephus and Criniger, diets tend more toward insects such as caterpillars, dragonflies, wood lice, and ants. The diets of Chlorocichla and Hypsipetes include more fruit, and many of these bulbuls are important for dispersing the seeds of forest plants and as pollinators. Fruit-eating species typically forage in trees, shrubs, and bushes, gathering fruits and berries while perched on twigs and stems. They will often consume smaller fruits whole, and will repeatedly peck fruits with hard, thick walls until they have torn a hole in the outer coat to get at the pulp. Figs (Ficus spp.), are present in the diet of most fruit-eating bulbuls, as well as Schefflera, Mu-sanga, and Lantana berries. These birds can do serious damage to orchards and other cultivated fruit crops. Indiscriminate in their preference for native or exotic berries, fruit-eating bulbuls often disperse noxious, weedy plant seeds.
Most insect-eating bulbuls forage on and among vegetation, but will also sally for insects in the air and hunt along the ground on fallen logs and branches. Many favor caterpillars and dragonflies, and several species have been found attending swarms of army ants. The yellow-bellied greenbul (Chlorocichla flaviventris) frequently forages on antelopes, landing on the animal and grooming its head, ears, and even eyes, presumably searching for small insects in the antelope's coat.
Although most bulbuls are omnivorous, a few specialize in certain foods. Sjostedt's honeyguide greenbul is closely associated with the small, black wasps Polybioides melaina that build large paper nests in riverbank trees. The bird will tear apart the nests, despite the vicious retaliation of the wasps, and the young birds are fed exclusively on the wax, larvae, and pupae of the insect.
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