Most softy birders, when they come across a bunch of these grassland squeakers, will squeal with delight and exclaim, “But they’re so cute!” It’s not a word I like to use, but yes, when you look at munias you can’t deny that there’s something endearing about these little birds. They have a derring-do cheerfulness about them: the bindaas way they swing with the monsoon winds, perched on stalks of tall grass, happily snacking off seeds as they do. If they’re feeling especially chuffed, one may even lean over and give its partner an affectionate peck on the cheek, while its friends chirrup approvingly. There are various species of munias found in India, and you are likely to encounter them in grassy meadows, swampy areas, sugarcane fields and thin scrubby forest.
Perhaps, the most commonly encountered one is the white-throated munia, now rather romantically called the silverbill (the kind of name a cowboy might like). It’s a little beige bird — smaller than a sparrow — with a chunky conical silver-grey bill, dark expressive eyes, a pointy tail with white on the top. Years ago, a bunch of them used to squeak down into the neighbour’s garden, where an all-you-can-eat buffet of wheat was laid out for them. But, then, the people left and the birds stopped coming, until a few days ago, when I spotted one at the water dish early in the morning. Some months earlier, I had been even more delighted in seeing a scaly-breasted munia (alias spotted munia, spice finch) on one of the banana trees in the garden, so it’s good to know they are close by.
Certainly, the most glamorous of the clan is the red munia, or avadavat. In the breeding season, around monsoon, the gents turn out in brown and crimson (they have red eyes too) and look as if they’ve been studded with bleached almonds. The ladies are blanket brown. After the romance and consequent strain of family-rearing, the males turn brown, but retain spots and specks of red on their tails, which really makes them look like they’ve been peppered on the bottom with scattershot. They like nesting near water, building a small globe out of grasses and leaves. I was delighted when (many years ago) I discovered a pair nesting in the reeds alongside one of the ponds at the Old Delhi Ridge, but, alas, the birds had chosen their site unwisely: it was far too close to the stomping feet of joggers and walkers and the would-be parents must have had several nervous breakdowns before deciding to abandon their home.
A silverbill pair nesting in the Sultanpur National Park in Haryana had no such worries: they’d set up home in the heart of such a ferociously thorny bush it was amazing that they could themselves access their home without being impaled or at least shredded to bits. They flew in and out blithely. I thought: hah, it’s all very well for you, wait till your babies have to leave home and take a look at what lies outside their doorstep. They’re not going to like it one bit — and may even decide never to leave home.
It was silverbills too that sent me into a tizzy — again, many years ago. While birding on the Ridge, I spotted what looked like a pair of them, except that instead of being beige, they were bright yellow. I scanned all my books and couldn’t find a similar bird anywhere. Was this a new species — a golden munia — that no one had recorded? Here, just five minutes away from home? What made it seem all the more plausible was that one of the pair (the poor female, obviously) was paler and more faded than her partner. I rushed back with the camera. They were still there!
Then, I took a good hard look at them again. The faded female, she looked like her colours had sort of run. The penny dropped. At the Jama Masjid bird market, I had discovered that you could get munias dyed green, neon blue and probably whatever “bespoke” colour you wanted. It’s really an awful thing to do to such sweet little birds, because often those dyes are toxic. Munias are, unfortunately, hot favourite pets and when I looked up the internet, there were sites which advised on how to keep them, how much to pay for them and so on.
On another occasion, again at the Ridge, I watched as an Omni stopped by the gates and a man, accompanied by a helper, began unloading cages and cages of painted munias. Then, with a flourish, he opened the cage doors one by one and let the birds go and folded his hands. Either he was giving thanks to the gods for some favour they’d bestowed upon him, or he was cadging a favour from them. If he’d been genuinely interested in the welfare of the little birds, he would not have bought them in the first place: the very act of buying means the seller would have to replenish his stocks from the wild.
One little munia that has suffered more than most is the endemic green munia, which apparently takes to captivity a little too well for its own good. So much so, that sellers catch lady red munias and dye them green, to pass them off as green munias. A favourite hotspot for these uncommon birds is Mount Abu, though they’re supposed to be found all along a broad belt of territory running right across central India.
Some birds are jaw-droppingly beautiful, others fierce predators, yet others as canny and sly as the best of us. The munias quite simply are mood elevators: meet a bunch of them out in a breezy field, and you will have no option but to smile — even if it is Monday tomorrow.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.