The Malabar Barbet (Megalaima malabarica) is a bird that is endemic to India. Once considered a subspecies of Crimson-fronted Barbet, Megalaima rubricapillus, which has a broader range, the Malabar Barbet is found in only the Western Ghats from Goa south to Kerala and western Tamil Nadu. There, it inhabits evergreen and moist deciduous forests, generally below 1200 m, and is often found in high quality shade coffee plantations.
Coffee plantations cover about 6% (around 830,000 ha) in the Western Ghats, and while all the coffee is grown under shade, the quality of the shade varies. A diverse mix of native shade trees is the highest quality, and it has been found that these types of farms have similar diversity of birds and other wildlife as is found in nearby forests — the same situation is true in Latin America. However, various laws and restrictions on cutting native trees (which could provide value to wildlife and as harvestable timber, for example) are much more strict in India. This, in part, has led to the widespread planting of silver or silky oak (Grevillea robusta), a fast-growing tree native to Australia.
Although Grevillea has flowers that can be attractive to nectar-feeding birds, it does not have fleshy fruit, important to many birds. Because it is harvested for timber, the areas where it is planted are subject to periodic disturbance and alteration. One study* found that in shade coffee farms in the Ghats, an increase in the proportion of silver oak from 33% to 55% was associated with 91% reduction in the abundance of the Malabar Barbet. This is more evidence that certifications that merely require shade as a percent of canopy cover will not help enhance or preserve biodiversity — “shade” certification should also include a mix of shade tree species and a requirement that a percentage of them be native species.
Barbets in general are small-to-medium, stout birds with short tails, big heads, and strong, thick bills. They are found all over the world in tropical regions. Barbets eat primarily fruit, and Malabar Barbets, like many other species, forage in the forest canopy (perhaps one reason there are few good photos of this species!). Ficus trees and their fruits are especially important. While many small fruit-eating birds swallow fruits whole, Malabar Barbets will also sit and pick on fruits too large to swallow. Ficus are often used as shade trees in shade coffee farms in India.
Barbets are related to woodpeckers, and like them nest in tree holes. Malabar Barbets typically use holes that they excavate themselves which are located on the underside of small branches, where they raise one or two young per nest. Thus, it is important for them to have trees with dead branches in their territories for nesting — something that isn’t too typical on a shade coffee farm where Grevillea is harvested.
There are nearly 30 species of birds found only in the Western Ghats. A number of them use shade coffee farms either directly, or as corridors that connect more suitable forest habitat.
Photo of the Malabar Barbet taken in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, by Sandeep Gangadharan under a Creative Commons license.
*Anand, O. M., J. Krishnaswamy, and A. Das. 2008. Proximity to forests drives bird conservation value of coffee plantations: implications for certification. Ecological Applications 18:1754-1763.