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Alex’s Bird Chirp No. 8 – Tinkerbirds and Barbets

Red fronted Tinkerbird at Ncwincwi camp

There are 10 species of Tinkerbirds and Barbets found in Southern Africa of which 5 species are common to our reserve, with possibly 2 more. Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird (Possible but favours more Northern habitat), Acacia Pied Barbet, White- eared Barbet (Possible but favours more lowland forest and lush woodland), Crested Barbet and the Black-collard Barbet. The Tinkerbirds are the smallest at only 12cm which is similar to the waxbills in size. The Acacia pied Barbet is larger at 18cm followed by the Black-collard Barbet at 20cm and the largest being the Crested Barbet at 24cm.

Interestingly the Tinkerbirds are heavily dependant on Mistletoe fruits (also called voel-ent in Afrikaans) It is found growing on numerous and diverse hosts such as species of Acacia, Aloe, Combretum, Diospyros, Maytenus, Melianthus, Rhus and Ziziphus and is one of the best known of the evergreen half-parasitic shrubs growing on other trees and shrubs.

The sticky seeds are deposited by the birds on the bark of branches and stems where they germinate rapidly. The developing plant attaches itself to the host by means of a specialized root-like structure known as a haustorium. It only discloses its presence by the fallen flowers and fruits found on the ground. It is often overlooked in trees as it blends in well with the leaves of the tree itself. It is best observed in winter when trees have few or no leaves. It is a tall shrub up to 1 m high with smooth, grey to brownish densely formed branches.


Tinkerbirds are also known for their calls which is a monotonous series of repeated tinkering pot,pot,pot … lasting up to several minutes.

The Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird has clear white lines through sides of black head. Call differs from the other tinkerbirds by having an intermitted 4-6 notes
rather than continuous. Excavates a small hole on the underside of a dead branch or stump.

The red-fronted Tinkerbird is identified by the deep red forecrown and yellow eyebrow. Habitat is open to dense woodland areas. Its call is an unbroken spell of notes >20 up to 335 continuous notes. Nest holes are similar to other Tinkerbirds.

The yellow-fronted Tinkerbird differs to the Red-fronted tinkerbird by having a yellow forecrown and a white eyebrow. Habitat is also different preferring drier savanna types such as thornveld. (Link-road to reserve gate and Western shore areas). Call is slightly slower pitched.


Barbets are larger in size than Tinkerbirds and they include more fruit and insects as part of their diet.

The Acacia Pied Barbet is sometimes confused with the Red-fronted Tinkerbird due to its red forecrown, however the bird is much larger than a tinkerbird and has a very distinguishable broad black throat bib. As its name suggests the Acacia Pied Barbet prefers a habitat of mixed acacia savanna. The call also differs from the Tinkerbirds and is a more nasal phep,phep,phep like a toy trumpet. Excavates a hole in a dead or growing tree trunk and occasionally utilises other bird’s nests

e.g. woodpecker holes and swallow nests. Interestingly the acacia Pied Barbet is parasitized by the Lesser Honeyguide which we will cover in a later chat.

Yellow fronted Tinkerbird
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In our next chat we will continue with the remaining Barbet species.