They really are redheads.
The name haemacephala in Megalaima haemacephala (their latin name), means redhead (haema=blood and cephala=head). In local parlance they are known as Coppersmith Barbets, after their call that sounds like a coppersmith beating his hammer with a tuk tuk tuk … a very monotonous, metallic call. They are small birds, only slightly bigger than the house sparrow.
Like all barbets, the Coppersmith is brightly coloured too, with its crimson forehead and yellow eye patches that contrast with the blackish line around its head. Its yellow throat, the dark streaking on its belly and flanks, and bright red legs and feet make for a very bright bird . It lives in gardens, groves, and sparse woodland and has adapted well to cities. It is fond of sunning in the hot afternoons and you can hear its call in the hottest part of the day.
It is largely a frugivorous bird and likes fruits and berries, especially those of banyan though it does enjoy a meal of some insects too. They are therefore important pollinators and seed dispersers. (If, you want barbets in your backyard grow more indigenous fruit trees).
The story I am about to tell you takes place on the Badam tree outside my window and begins from the day when the barbets first arrived to inspect a broken branch. The earliest interest they showed was in July. They chose a soft part of the tree to make a nest. Mr and Mrs Barbet both look alike and help in nest-building activities. They also work together in incubating and raising their little chicks. Now, this is what I call true equality in sharing household chores.
By September they had chosen a spot and were already excavating a hole in the wood. Barbets nest and roost in cavities. What’s the difference? Well, nesting is where the bird lays its eggs, and roosting is where it sleeps. While nests are deeper and elaborate affairs, roosting can take place even on a well-hidden branch of a tree. Observe also the grip of the legs and feet on the rim of the nest cavity. Their feet are arranged in a Zygodactyly manner which is a characteristic feature of Piciformes (Piciformes is the order to which Barbets, Woodpeckers, and toucans belong). Zygodactyly refers to an arrangement of feet wherein two toes face forward and the other two backward. This is common in arboreal birds that need to climb tree trunks and hence require a firm grip
Come October, and I noticed that their heads were already inside the cavity making me think that they had excavated at least six inches into the tree. By late October they were carving out the finer details of the nest chamber. I would often see them peeping out of the nest to check the scene outside.
All barbets have bristles at the base of their beaks which are actually feathers and not hair. The precise function of this beard is not known but may provide protection from wood particles as it excavates its nest from getting into the eye. By the way, the word barbet derives from the Latin word ‘barba’ which means a beard.
This photo from mid-November shows that the branch on which they were carving their nest had broken for reasons not known to me. Undaunted by the sudden mishap one of them was already busy excavating at another spot just below the previous nest-cavity.
Come March and they were still excavating the second nest and seemed to be working on interior design.
I would often catch them taking a short break from all the hectic nest building activity and straightening their bodies out a bit.
By the last week of April both parents were busy getting banyan figs into the nest. I was sure there was a small but hungry family inside the nest. The nesting was successful!
Is that a chuckle that asks ‘mazaa aaya kya?’
As I write this article sitting by my window, and life has come to a grinding halt because of the lockdown, I see another or maybe one of the same barbets busy with nest building again. My camera is ready, and my pen awaits yet another story of my little feathered friends.
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