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Friday, July 03, 2020

Why munias are real charmers

Let their expressive eyes and affectionate nature tell you.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Updated: June 14, 2020 9:52:05 am
How glossy are my feathers: A scaly-breasted mania. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been having guests over for lunch, as many as 15 of them sometimes, enjoying a bajra buffet outside the dining room, courtesy the parakeets upstairs, who seem to spill more than they consume. They’re a group of sweetly-behaved, dusky, scaly-breasted munias (nee spotted munias, or “tilyar” munias) which only really seem to show off their chainmail chests when the sun falls upon them. They feed industriously, cheeping to one another, ever ready to take flight at the slightest signs of trouble. Mostly their feeding manners are impeccable, though I have noticed that even within this group, there seems to be a hierarchy in operation: one or two dominant birds will drive away others in a manner totally unbecoming of otherwise sweet birds.

By and large, munias seem to be an affectionate lot. I’ve seen silverbills (nee white-breasted munias) canoodle and they seem very concerned about the security of their chicks. At Sultanpur National Park, we once came across a silverbill’s nest built deep in the heart of probably the most ferocious cactus growing in Haryana. How the parents entered and exited their home without skewering themselves was a mystery and I really felt for the chicks.

Another pair of Scaly-breasted munias (their other aliases, nutmeg manikin and spice finch are so much nicer) took a more ingenious approach. They set up home in a large potted plant inside the verandah of my sister’s flat in Pune. The verandah had been enclosed by a fine mesh net all around to keep the obnoxious pigeons out. The mesh was big enough to allow the munias to come and go easily, but nothing larger. So: no crows, no cats or any such nasties.

Another pair of avadavats (aka red munias; really this name-changing game is such a nuisance) foolishly built their tennis-ball-like nest out of fresh strips of grass low down in the undergrowth, near a waterbody on the Northern Ridge. Though fairly well concealed, it was far too close to the pathway and easily accessible to the monkeys, which swarmed about everywhere. Sadly, they didn’t manage to raise a family. Avadavats is sort of the stars of the munia show — in the monsoon, which is their breeding season, the gents are clad in chocolate-brown-running-to-crimson, with dark-brown wings that are ruby-red below, sprinkled with white spots, which look like small blanched almonds. The ladies are blanket-brown. Both have crimson bills. In the non-breeding season, the gents turn brown too, with a scattering of spots and a red splotch on their posteriors.

There are a few other members of the clan, the white-backed munia, the black-headed munia (I think this was also called the black-headed nun) and the rare green munia. Some of them, silverbills in this particular case, are not averse to taking over-zealous birders for a ride. Out birding on the Northern Ridge, I came across a pair of munias which were pure gold. Well, one was a lovely deep golden colour, its partner paler. Back home, I sifted through all the books but could find none matching their description, so I went back armed with the camera. And glory is, they were still around! Surely they were a pair — with the gentleman, as usual, outclassing the lady — and maybe a species undiscovered by science until now? I photographed them ad nauseam and then peered at them carefully. The colours of the “lady” seemed to have run, like umm…paint trickling down. The penny dropped. They had been dyed for the pet trade and were either escapee or had been set free by some misguided soul who didn’t realise that by buying them, he or she was just encouraging this heinous trade. Sure enough, sometime later, a Maruti van drew up outside the Ridge and a man and boy emerged, unloading several cages crammed with munias — all ready to be freed. This sort of thing is looked upon as an act of benevolence or one to appease the gods for past misdemeanours or to beg a favour. Obviously, it was a thriving, if illegal, business. To drive the point home, our garden was also visited by a motley flock of shiny turquoise, magenta and emerald-green munias — possible escapees from the Jama Masjid bird market.

If you really want to enjoy the company of munias, go to a meadow or wheat or maize or bajra field. You’re sure to come across cheeping flocks of them, blithely swinging in the breeze on the fronds of high wild grass. With their small stout bodies, stumpy tails, conical bills and expressive eyes, they are truly charming. As for me, I look forward to their company every afternoon. I am hoping they might even consider setting up home in the thick hedges and dense undergrowth around the garden. Rent-free, of course, with all meals!

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