Barbets are odd, chunky birds with large beaks. There’s so much more that can be said about this group of birds but that’s the first description that comes to mind. They also tend to be colorful, one plays a role in Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”, and they only occur in places with lots of other cool, tropical birds. However, as DNA and morphological studies have indicated, despite the barbets of Asia and Africa looking quite like the ones in the Americas, they aren’t closely related to each other. The two families of New World barbets, the Capitonidae and the Semnornithidae, are actually more related to toucans.

With its small bill and green plumage, the Northern Emerald Toucanet almost looks more like a barbet. 

Although most New World Barbets live in the tropical forests of South America (“the bird continent”), us birders in Costa Rica are fortunate to have two species to watch and listen to. Like many other barbets, both are clownish birds in terms of plumage and song;

the Red-headed Barbet

and the Prong-billed Barbet

The Red-headed Barbet is a member of the Capitonidae and like other New World Barbets, is often seen in mixed flocks. It tends to forage in the canopy of wet, mossy forest where it feeds on fruits and inspects dead leaves as it forages for any number of small creatures. This birds is much more often seen than heard but that might be related to the quiet quality of its song, a toad-like trill.

When espied with a mixed flock in the canopy, sometimes, all one sees is a chunky bird with thick stripes on the flanks.

This species can be seen in any middle elevation rainforest in Costa Rica, it also visits fruit feeders at Cinchona, Bosque Tolomuco, and Vista del Valle.

The female Red-headed Barbet is beautiful in her own subtle way. 

The Prong-billed Barbet is in the Semnornithidae, a family shared with the Toucan Barbet of western Colombia and Ecuador. Unlike the Toucan-Barbet, the Prong-billed isn’t colorful. A common resident of cloud forest, this species is often seen in pairs as it forages in mixed flocks or feeds at a fruiting tree. Unlike the Red-headed Barbet, the Prong-billed is quite vocal. Its yodeling song is a typical aspect of the cloud forest soundscape in Costa Rica and western Panama, a region to which it is endemic.

The Prong-billed Barbet can be seen in any number of cloud forest sites, some of the better ones being Tapanti National Park and Monteverde. Like the Red-headed, it can also visit feeders with fruit, especially at the Cafe Mirador de Catarata (aka the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe).

Spend enough time at the cafe and both barbets will probably make an appearance!


Written by Patrick O'Donnell
Patrick O'Donnell became a birder at the age of 7 after seeing books about birds in the Niagara Falls, New York public library. Although watching thousands of gulls in the Niagara Gorge was sublime, more bird species (and warmer weather) eventually brought him to Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and other very birdy tropical places. A biologist by training, he has worked on bird-related projects in Colorado, Washington, Peru, and other locales, and has guided birders in Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. These days, he lives in Costa Rica where he juggles guiding, freelance writing, developing bird apps for Costa Rica and Panama, posting on his Costa Rica birding blog, and discussing dinosaurs with his young daughter.