“In 2001 we noticed a pair of Coppersmith Barbets (Megalaima haemacephala) excavating a nest hole in a dead branch of a Flame of Forest tree (Delonix regia) in our work place. For two consecutive seasons we watched them feed (right) and successfully raised a pair of chicks each time.
“In 2003 the pair returned to use the same nest hole. On 25 March 2003, after a heavy rainstorm the previous evening, we found the host branch on the ground and, on scanning the area, one small and wet shivering chick was located. When we went back later to the site we found the second chick. Their frail condition and small size left us wondering whether they would make it. The weights of the chicks were measured (refer table below).
“We put a towel in a cardboard box and placed the chicks inside (left top). Never having raised any barbet chicks before, we initially fed them with ripe berries from the Indian Cherry tree (Muntingia calabura) by holding the chicks in our hands and slightly squeezing the pulp and juice into their bills (left bottom). After initial hesitation on the first day, both chicks ate better. As the chicks needed constant care and feeding, they were kept in the office during working hours taken home at night either by the author or Phang Chee Mun.
“By the fourth day in our care, more feathers had grown. We continued with the diet of berries but found that, though the chicks were eating well, they had lost weight. A friend who keeps Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) recommended that we try dog food pellets as these were a good source of protein. We immediately started the chicks on a diet of dog food pellet (first soaked in water till soft and fed in small pieces), papayas and bananas. Colleagues who went out for lunch contributed part of their fruits to the chicks. It was noticed that the chicks would always flick away any excess water before swallowing the pellets. The chicks were very demanding and every half to three-quarters of an hour would call out loudly for food.
“On 3 April 2003, the chicks had put on weight again and by 7 April the chicks were learning to pick up food themselves. The chicks were kept in an open box and we made mini stands for them to perch on (right top). At home in the evenings the chicks were placed on a tree in the garden (right bottom). Both chicks had different characters, the bigger chick being dominant and always bullying the smaller one. On 8 April, the chicks started to explore away from their cozy box and on 9 April, when placed on a tree, they started to jump around the branches.
“On 10 April, the chicks started to exercise their wings and on 11 April, the bigger chick was able to fly a distance of about one metre while the smaller chick only managed about 0.3 m.
“On 13 April, the bigger chick stopped eating the dog food pellet and was only eating papaya while the smaller chick continued taking both pellet and papaya. On the evening of 14 April, the bigger chick refused to come down from the tree in my garden and then flew off across the road towards the larger trees opposite my house. The smaller chick tried to follow but could only reach some shrubs in my neighbour’s garden.
“The next morning I heard both chicks calling. The bigger chick was on a tall tree opposite my house, calling and encouraging the smaller chick which was still in my neighbour’s garden to join it. Before leaving for work I retrieved the smaller chick, placed it in the tree in my garden and left some papaya for it. In the evening when I came home the smaller chick was still in the same tree while the bigger chick was perched high up in another tree in my garden. Later, the smaller chick flew strongly and joined the bigger chick on a tree opposite my house. Both roosted there that night.
“The next day, 16 April and thereafter, the chicks would return back to the tree in my garden every morning and evening to eat the papaya which I would leave out for them. The free fruit attracted the attention of other birds too and after 30 April, the chicks stopped returning to the fruit tray. Though no more dependent on the hand-outs, the chicks learned to survive on their own and continued to be seen together daily for another few more weeks and had probably learned to source for their own food.”
Images by Ooi Beng Yean and Phang Chee Mun.
The above was first published in Suara Enggang as: Chiu, S.C., Ooi, B.Y. and Phang C.M. 2007. Coppersmith Barbet Chicks With a Steely Spirit. Suara Enggang 15 (2):13-14.