Many of us may not be familiar with red munia, a colourful and beautiful bird, because it is not our backyard bird. Due to their striking colours, red munias were popular cage birds and used to be exported from India before Independence.
However, this small bird of finch family has a deep connection with Ahmedabad, India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City. The common English name of this bird is red avadavat, which is derived from Ahmedabad’s local name Amdavad. Thus, this small songbird, also called strawberry finch because of the spots on its red body, has been named after Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat, its commercial hub which used to be the seat of power in the medieval era.
While describing and illustrating this gorgeous bird in 1738, English naturalist Eleazar Albin named the red munia as ‘the Amaduvads Cock and Hen.’ The scientific name of this bird is amandava amandava, derived from Amdavad. Due to their vibrant colours, striking looks and melodious songs, red avadavats were popular among foreigners and they used to be exported as cage birds. Recently the producers of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), the popular reality show hosted by Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan, had a question about this bird in one of the episodes when a contestant from Gujarat was on the hot seat.
Males and females of red munia are different in colour. As per the name red munia, the breeding male has shiny red feathers on most of the upper parts except black eye-stripe and lower belly. The white pearly spots on the red feathers make the bird more appealing. As we know, female birds are duller and of brownish colour and with fewer white spots on feathers.
Red munia’s breeding and non-breeding morphs are different. The non-breeding male looks duller much as the female. The non-breeding plumage of this bird often confuses birdwatchers in the field to tell males and females apart. The beak turns red in the month of May as their breeding season begins and darkens during November as the breeding season ends.
The red munia is a bird of open fields and grasslands. The possibility of finding this bird in an urban area is quite slim. When we go to the nearby villages or take a road that passes through farmland or fields, we can easily see this beautiful, attractive red bird. It is also called lal tapasiyu in Gujarati for its prominent red colour.
Red munias like to live in groups. They are often found in reeds, in tall grass, and crops near water. They consume seeds of grass as food and build a globular nest made of grass blades. Pairs stay together during the breeding season. They breed in the monsoon season.
This finch flies rapidly and descends into the grass and is hard to observe. It is a really difficult bird for birdwatchers and photographers to observe and photograph.
The red munia is a resident bird of Gujarat. Around four species of the bird are found in Gujarat. Red munia is a small passerine bird, smaller than a sparrow and a member of the Estrildidae family.
Famous Gujarati poet Kalapi’s poem ‘Aagiyane’ (to the firefly) hits a crescendo when the poet philosophises, “je poshtu te martu avo dise kram kudarati (the very features which make one attractive and set one apart from others can also kill one)”. This also applies to the red munia. The very beauty of this bird became a bane for the species for a period of time. The prominent, attractive red colour of this bird became its killer as it made it a popular cage bird. Red avadavats were already exported by the thousands to Vietnam in the 1920s from India. But now they have legal protection by virtue of having been included in Schedule IV of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
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Red avadavat has been designated as a species of Least Concern (LC) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But grasslands and farmlands are decreasing fast and this will have a direct bearing on the population of this bird in the long run. The present range of red munia includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.
How rich the Gujaratis and Amadavadis are to have such beauty in our state and city. The true heritage for the heritage city.
(Sushila Rathod is a technical assistant with the School of Energy Technology of Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gandhinagar and a birdwatcher)