A bird in a bonnet

Or should that be a bee in the bonnet? No, it definitely was a bird. It was small enough to be a coppersmith barbet, and sounded like one to me. I wished it would come out of the leaf which was wearing as a bonnet so that I could get a good look at it. Nosher had said something about a Malabar barbet some time back, and I hadn’t seen it. Could it be the same one? I was interested in this question because the coppersmith barbet (Psilopogon haemacephalus) is one of the commonest barbets in Asia, whereas the Malabar barbet (Psilopogon malabaricus) is endemic to the Malabar region of the western ghats. Since we were in Urulanthanni near Thattekad in Kerala, it could be either, but I hoped that it was the one I had not seen before.

If you are a twitcher, you could be puzzled by my claim that the coppersmith barbet is a Psilopogon, whereas it is widely said to be in the genus Megalaima (for example, in my copy of the field guide by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp). The reason is that a recent study of molecular phylogeny of Asian barbets showed that Megalaima and Psilopogon are not separate phyla, and should be merged. As a result, the rule of historical precedence of names means that all Megalaima should be called Psilopogon. The study actually showed something more interesting: that the huge diversity of Asian barbets (of which there are more than 30 species today) originated more than 16 million years ago. There is also evidence that the original diversification of this lineage occurred around Borneo, Java and Sumatra (called the Sundaland), from where it spread towards India, the Himalayas and China and underwent even more speciation about 6 million years ago.

The birds of India are the true original inhabitants of the landmass. The thirty thousand years of humans pale into nothing compared to the six million years of the barbets, the ancient history of the banyan, and the fifty million years of hornbills.

A little later I found that the bird which was earlier hidden in a bonnet of leaves had hopped on to a stand of bamboos. Now that I could see it clearly I could tell by the absence of yellow on the cheeks and throat, and the solid green of its wings and breast, that it was indeed a Malabar barbet. A lifer!

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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