GENTLEMEN," said a Cambridge professor to his class, " I regret that owing to the forgetfulness of my assistant, I am unable to show you a specimen of the shell of the mollusc of which we are speaking. You have, however, but to step into the parlour of any seaside lodging-house and on the mantelpiece you will see two of the shells in question." Every undergraduate immediately knew what the shell was like; so will my readers at once recognise the bird of which I write when I inform them that the amadavat is the little red bird with white spots that occurs in every aviary in India. The bird is, indeed, not all red, but the bill is bright red and there are patches of this colour all over the plumage -: more in the cock than in the hen, and more in the former in the breeding season than at other times. Thus the general effect is that of a red bird ; hence the native name Lal munia, which, being interpreted, is the red munia. This is the proper English name of the bird, although fanciers frequently call it the red waxbill. Men of science know it as Sporaeginthus amandava. I may say here that the name avadavat or amadavat is derived from Ahmedabad, whence great numbers used to be exported, for the bird is a great favourite in England.
It is the cage bird of India par excellence. Hundreds of thousands of amadavats must at this moment be living in captivity. The bird takes to cage life as a Scotsman to whisky. Within five minutes of capture the little creature is contentedly eating its seed and singing quite gaily. This is no exaggeration. I was recently out with a friend when we came upon a small boy catching munias. We saw captured a fine cock which my friend purchased for two annas. Not happening to have a cage in his pocket, he put the tiny creature into a fold of his handkerchief and placed the remainder of the handkerchief in his pocket. While we were walking home our captive began twittering in answer to his companions who were still free. If this be not philosophical behaviour, I do not know what is.
Nothing is easier than to catch munias. All that is required is the common, pyramidal-shaped, four-anna wicker cage in which birds are usually carried about in India. To the base of one of the walls of this a flap is attached by a hinge. The flap is the same size and shape as the wall of the cage, and composed of a frame over which a narrow-meshed string net is stretched. A string is fastened to the apex of the flap. The cage, with a captive bird inside, is placed in the open so that the flap rests on the ground. On this some groundsel is thrown. In a few minutes a passing amadavat is attracted to the cage by the song of the bird inside. The new-comer at once begins to feed on the groundsel. Then the bird-catcher, who is seated a few yards away, pulls the string sharply, so that the flap closes over the side of the cage and thus the bird is secured. It is then placed inside the cage and the flap again set. In this manner a dozen or more amadavats can be captured in an hour. As nine red munias are sold for a rupee, and as they will live for years in captivity and cost next to nothing to keep, it is not surprising that they are popular pets.
Moreover, the amadavat is no mean songster. "Eha" is, I think, a little severe on the bird when he states that " fifty in a cage make an admirable chorus." The bird is small, so is its voice, but what there is of the latter is exceedingly sweet. Were its notes only louder the bird would be in the first rank as a songster. A rippling stream of cheery twitters emanates unceasingly from a cage of munias. The birds seem never to tire. The cock frequently utters, in addition to this perpetual twitter, a warble of five or six notes. The birds love to huddle together in a row on a perch and twitter in chorus. Suddenly the chorus ceases; one of the birds raises his head above the level of the others and sings a solo, while the rest listen in silence with the air of connoisseurs. When he has finished, another bird has a "turn," then another. The whole performance always puts me in mind of one of those impromptu concerts which soldiers are so fond of getting up.
Quite apart from their song, munias afford him who keeps them much pleasure, because they are most amusing birds to watch. They are very fond of heat. They are happiest when the thermometer stands at about a hundred. When they huddle together for the sake of warmth, all are content except the two end birds, who are kept warm only on one side. No bird, therefore, likes to be an outside one of a row. If two or three, sitting close together, are joined by another, this last does not take up a position at the end of the line. He knows a trick worth two of that. He perches on the backs of two in the middle and tries to wedge himself in between them. Some-times he succeeds. Sometimes he does not. When he does succeed he frequently upsets the equilibrium of the whole row.
Needless to say, the birds roost huddled together, and at bed-time there is great manoeuvring to avoid an outside position. Each tries to get somewhere in the middle, and, in order to do so, adopts one of two methods. He either flops on top of birds already in position, and, if he cannot wedge himself in, sleeps with one foot on the back of one bird and the other on its neighbour's back. The birds do not seem to mind being sat upon in this way. The other method is for the two outer birds to press inwards until one of those in the middle of the row is squeezed so hard as to lose its foothold and be violently ejected upwards. The bird thus jockeyed out of its position then hops to one end and in its turn begins to push inwards, and so the process continues until the birds grow too sleepy to struggle any more. All this contest is conducted with¬out a sound. There is no bickering or squabbling. The only thing I know like it is the contest in the dining-room of an Indian hotel, when two "boys," each belonging to a different master, seize a dish simultaneously. Each is determined to secure that dish, and neither dares utter a sound for fear of angering his Sahib. Thus they struggle in grim silence. Eventually one is victorious and walks off in triumph with the dish. The defeated servant at once accepts the situation ; so is it with a munia ejected from a central position.
Although amadavats are widely distributed in India and fairly common in most parts of the country, they usually escape notice on account of their small size. When flying overhead they are probably mistaken for sparrows. Moreover, they do not often visit gardens; they prefer open country.
Amadavats belong to the finch family, to the great tribe which includes the sparrow, the canary, and the weaver-bird. By their coarse, stout beak, tapering to a point, you may know them. The use of this big beak is to husk grain. Finches do not gobble up their seed whole as pigeons or fowls do; they carefully husk each grain before swallowing it. Hence the meal of a bird of this family is a somewhat protracted affair. He who keeps an aviary should remember this and provide his birds with several seed-boxes, otherwise one or two bullies (for there are bullies even among tiny birds) are apt to monopolise the food.
He should also bear in mind that Nature does not provide her feathered children with teeth. Seed-eating birds, therefore, habitually swallow small stones and pieces of grit. These perform the function of millstones inside the bird. From this it follows that it is cruel to keep seed-eating birds without supplying them with sand and grit.
The bone of a cuttle-fish, tied to the wall of the cage, is much appreciated by all the finch tribe and helps to keep them in condition.
The nest of the amadavat is a large ball of fibrous material, somewhat carelessly put together, with a hole at one side by way of entrance. Winter is the season in which to look for the nests, but they are not easy to find, being well concealed in low bushes. Six pure white glossless eggs are usually laid.