Encounter: The Coppersmith Barbet

More often heard than seen, the diminutive Coppersmith is a thousand times smaller than its enormous voice

Once a while we may be treated to the sight of a coppersmith perched this low

I was on my first ever trip to Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary near Mysore, when I had a flat tire halfway through. As I pushed my two-wheeler along with my friend for kilometers looking for a pile of tires or a board screaming “puncher” (or variants of it) advertising a puncture mechanic in these parts of the world, I saw a strikingly colorful bird on an electric line. It was predominantly dark green, with striking red tufts above the beak and under the chin. It sat there, tilting its head left and right, and then took off. And I came home, thumbed through my Salim Ali (this was before I graduated to Grimmett and Inskipp) and found the name — Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala).

A not-so-ripe fig makes a Coppersmith look elsewhere…

I had to wait a while before I came to realize the philosophy behind the intriguing name. I came to hear (and see) it calling high up from a treetop with its neck craned — whatever little it could manage with that short neck – and letting out a full-throated but short ringing tuk… tuk…. Apparently, this call earned the bird its name as it sounded, to the imaginative listener, like a coppersmith flattening out a sheet of his metal with a mallet.
Once his mind is set on it, no fig is too large!

Sexes are alike and juveniles are cute variants of the adults sans the red above the beak and below the eyes.

A juvenile, lacking the red crest and throat patch
The coppersmith is mostly a frugivore and a voracious fig eater — if you see a fig tree with a large number of ripe fruits, take a closer look: the coppersmith barbet is invariably in there.
Who said three’s too many?

The Coppersmith Barbet has survived in semi-urban areas and cities that offer fruiting trees for food, and cavities on tree trunks for nesting. If you still find the bird uninteresting you also might change your opinion when I tell you that it is the official bird of the city of Mumbai. That is a fitting honor for a resilient bird that is clinging on despite rampant urbanization.
Text and photographs by Sandeep Somasekharan
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