There is only one species, with three races of avadavat: the Indian or Bombay avadavat, the Javan avadavat and the golden-bellied avadavat of Burma. The name «avadavat» is a corruption of Ahmadabad, the Indian city from which the birds were first sent to Europe. The Javan race is sometimes called the «strawberry finch» by bird fanciers, but the name is not restricted to this race. Other names for the species are tiger finch or red waxbill. Avadavats are about the size of wrens but are strikingly coloured. The male is coppery to bright red with black underparts, dark brown wings and tail, and reddish-brown crown. The back, rump, wings and belly are dashed with white spots. The female is more sombre, being dark brown with paler underparts, yellow on the belly, having some red on the tail and rump, and white spots on the wings. The male avadavat is unique in the finch family for having a non-breeding «eclipse» plumage: at the end of the breeding season the male moults to a plumage very much like that of the female, although he can always be distinguished from her by the brighter and more extensive red on his rump.
Avadavats live in damp areas where reeds and tall grasses flourish. Well known as cage birds, they do well in captivity. They can be left outside in mild winters, but it is wise not to let the cage temperature drop below 7°C/45°F.
When they are not feeding or busy with nesting, avadavats spend their time sitting together in small groups, usually of three or four, and sometimes up to nine. Like the anis, the avadavats are very tolerant of each other’s company and they do more than merely sit together. They actively «clump». That is, they push or lean against each other, so much so that a bird on the outside may have to lower its wing as a prop, to prevent itself from being pushed over. Clumps usually start to form around a bird that is sitting quietly. Other birds approach it carefully in a submissive attitude. Normally, when one animal approaches another that is not already its mate or its companion, that one will show aggression. A show of submission calms its fears so that it is not provoked into attacking or fleeing.
Bright birds feed right
In the wild, avadavats feed on the ground, picking up seeds and insects. In aviaries the selection of food for avadavats is very important, for if they are not well-fed, they lose the brilliant red plumage and become coppery brown or even black. A recommended diet is seed, such as small yellow millet, fresh seeding or flowering grasses, ants and their pupae or «ants» eggs».
All these foodstuffs contain carotenoids, members of the group of chemicals to which carotene – which gives the orange colour to carrots – belongs. The birds convert these chemicals into brighter forms, which become concentrated in their feathers. Once a week, and more often in winter, the seed is treated with halibut oil, and crushed eggshell and sand given.
Post-monsoon breeding display
In the wild breeding takes place after the monsoons. Before mating the avadavats go through a series of displays. One is called the straw display in which either the male or the female picks up a feather or piece of grass by the shaft and, holding it out in front of itself, fluffs out its feathers and bows slowly. The displaying bird, be it male or female, also sings during the display, a high-pitched warble which slowly descends the scale.
Each male defends an area extending several yards in each direction from his nest. Somewhere in this area will be a special perch where he sings.
He shows fight to any male that comes into his territory, by displaying at him or actually attacking. The signal that releases a cock’s aggressiveness is the red plumage on the other cock. This acts in the same way as the red breast of the robin. Females and cocks in eclipse plumage are ignored. Hens, however, will attack other hens.
The nest is untidy, not neatly woven like those of the related weaver finches. The avadavats take bundles of material to the site, usually high in a tree. First, a flat platform is made amongst twigs, then grass is added and finally a lining of feathers.
Four to six pure white eggs are laid and incubated for about 29 days. The young are fed by both parents. When a young avadavat is approached by one of its parents it crouches and opens its bill, at the same time waving its head, unlike the other nestlings of its order, which merely stretch their necks and gape. It also opens both its wings and often flutters them. This performance is known as food-begging and the form it takes depends on how hungry the chick is. If it is well fed the chick merely opens its bill without begging.
Avadavats, and other birds that live together in close groups, can often be seen preening each other. This is called allopreening, to distinguish it from autopreening, when a bird preens its own feathers. In allopreening the preening bird grass a feather of the other bird at the base and draws its beak along the shaft gently nibbling it as it goes. This is precisely what a bird does when preening its feathers. Allopreening is, however, usually conned to the partner’s head, and the bird being preened assists the preener by rolling and twisting its head to present different parts to the preener’s bill.
Allopreening takes place when the avadavats are perching in their tight «clumps». Sometimes a bird will lean over its neighbour and preen the bird beyond it. A more careful watch on the «clump» will show that a bird invites another to preen it by adopting a special «invitation» posture. It ruffles the plumage around its head and rapidly opens and shuts its beak, sometimes uttering a very high-pitched, rapidly repeated call. If very keen to be preened, it will even push against the bird it is inviting and repeatedly bring the top of its head in front of the latter’s bill.
At first sight it would seem that allopreening enables a bird to get its head preened, an action cannot perform itself. This idea was tested by putting our onto the head feathers of some avadavats, but there was no difference in the time spent being allopreened before and after soling, so allopreening must serve some other function. Further observations showed that allopreening is used to reduce aggression between two birds, for whenever two animals come together they will either be aggressive or fearful of each other. In a «clump» the head of an avadavat is exposed and this is the part that is likely to be attacked by another bird. The ruffling of the head feathers in the invitation posture can therefore be construed as a gesture of appeasement, turning the bird’s mood from aggression to a friendly preening. Further allopreening will help cement the friendly relationship. It is very likely that allopreening started as a means of getting inaccessible parts of the body cleaned, but it now has an added, more important function. Birds will spend much more time allopreening than is necessary for cleaning the feathers, confirming its social function of ensuring group harmony.