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Whyte’s Barbet

Pair Of Whyte's Barbets

Stactolaema whytii  (Genus: Stactolaema = Greek “with drip like marks on the throat”; species whytii = after Alexander Whyte (1834-1905), government naturalist in Nyasaland (Malawi) under the patronage of Sir Harry Johnston)

Chizuvaguru (Shona, general name for barbets), 

Barbican de Whyte (French), 

Barbacas de Whyte (Portuguese)


The names of this bird are pretty unimaginative, except perhaps the Greek species name, Stactolaema, which mentions the “drip-like marks on the throat” – I think you can see these clearly in the first two pictures.  I would have said “tear-drop like” and “breast” rather than “throat” but perhaps that doesn’t sound so good in Greek.   I can’t find a specific name in Shona, only the generic name for all the barbets (chizuvaguru: I had no answer for the question in my last post as to whether this name refers to the sun, zuva).  

Its official name in English is Whyte’s Barbet: by calling a bird after the person who first cataloged it, ornithology acknowledges the footprints (or fingerprints?) of some of its more self-publicizing participants on the African landscape.  (Or is that unfair?  Perhaps Mr. Whyte was just fortunate to settle on a bird which was rather unmarked by obviously distinctive features that might have suggested a more descriptive name.) 

Barbet, Whyte's

You might also think this is a rather unremarkable looking bird, especially in comparison with the spectacularly colourful Crested Barbet. Their overall rather dull brown colour is broken only by the white wing panels, the pale yellow forehead and the white streak under the eyes and white patch on the ‘chin’.  To my eye, this gives them a rather clownish look, as can be seen in the picture above and, even more strikingly in the last picture (below) in which it is poking its head out of the nesting hole. The picture above also shows the bird’s plumage looking rather startlingly bright – perhaps he is wearing some new mating outfit.   

The book says “Generally uncommon, or locally common … a resident… in well-developed brachystigia woodland, especially where fruiting trees support large flocks throughout the year”.  Brachystigia means more or less msasa trees, or miombo.  So we are talking about ‘miombo woodland’.  There are not many of those in Harare and though there are fruiting trees, I wonder if these birds have widened their diet to live in the city.  I have seen a small flock or three or four birds in my Mount Pleasant garden.  I first became aware of their presence when I spotted a beautifully chiseled nest-hole in what is (I think) one of the few brachystigia in this neigbourhood and I used to keep my eye on it as I came past it twice a day.  I soon got to know the residents and began to see an occupant sticking its head out to see what is new or look for its partner returning with food for the chicks.  Unlike the tree in the third picture below, the wood of this tree is quite hard, so it must have been quite a job chipping out a hole.  I think I witnessed one day the first outside excursions of the chick itself (or one of the chicks).  

The Whyte’s barbet excavates those neat nest-holes itself with its strong beak: some birds use holes excavated by other animals or birds, but these responsible and respectable barbets dig their own.  They are one of the few birds that use their nests not just for breeding and caring for chicks but also for roosting i.e. sleeping at night.  It must be quite cosy in there if there are more than one. 

The books say that it rarely calls and is the quietest barbet in the region, making just a soft koo koo koo; but I have now identified a quite loud and slightly raucous chatter that you can hear on the web-site listed above.  On many evenings I used to see a small group of them sitting on the top branches of one of our trees.  I haven’t seen them for a while: they may have left (the nest/roosting hole looked somehow abandoned when I last looked at it), though I hope not.  

These are modest birds, I would say, and unobtrusive: good neighbours, getting on quietly and effectively with their lives leaving us to get on with ours.  Quiet neighbours: that’s what people mostly expect in this kind of neighbourhood, isn’t it? I hope they are still around: I count myself lucky to know them.  And to know where their nest is.  

Stephen Buckland

Dr. Stephen Buckland – Lecturer in Philosophy but also a keen amateur bird watcher.

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