The blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) is a large species of bee-eater found in much of the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia. This species is found in openings in patches of dense forest. It is found in the Malayan region and also extends into the Western Ghats in southwestern India. The blue feathers of its throat are elongated and often held fluffed up giving it the name. They are not as gregarious or active as the smaller bee-eaters, and their square ended tail lacks the typical “wires” made up of the shafts of the longer central tail feathers in many species.
This large bee-eater has a large sickle shaped bill and the square ended tail lacks the “wires” that are typical of smaller bee-eaters. The bird is grass green with a turquoise forehead, face and chin. The feathers of the throat are elongated giving it a bearded appearance when they are fluffed out. The belly is yellowish to olive with streaks of green or blue. The peninsular Indian populations are said to be paler green than the northeast Indian populations. Although males and females appear similar, the blue throat feathers of the male show higher ultraviolet reflectivity than those of the female.
This species is found in a variety of habitats mostly at medium altitudes but below 2000m altitude. Thin to fairly thick forest in medium elevations with clearings is the typical habitat. It is found singly or in small groups of up to three and is very patchily distributed. Their presence in an area can easily be missed. It has been reported from the hill regions of the Satpuras, Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, Nilgiris, Chota Nagpur and from the Sub-Himalayan forests.
This bird has a loud call, but does not call frequently. It is also not as active as the smaller bee-eaters. The calls include cackling hornbill like calls, a dry “Kit-tik… Kit-tik” in a series or hollow nasal “kyao” calls. Pairs may engage in duets of cackling and rattling which ends in short purring notes. The flight is undulating and very barbet-like.
The breeding season is February to August in India and courtship involves ritual feeding, bowing and tail fanning. Nest excavation may begin a month before the laying of eggs. The nest is a deep tunnel in a mud bank within which four very spherical and white eggs are laid.
The species appears to feed mainly on bees. It exploits the defensive behavior of Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) colonies by provoking the mass release of guard bees which are then caught and eaten as they pursue the bird. Although mainly foraging using aerial sallies, it is known to glean from bark. They may sometimes associate with mixed-species foraging flocks. Birds have been seen at flowers of Erythrina and Salmalia although it is unclear whether they fed on nectar or insects attracted to the flowers.