The Red Strawberry Finch (Red Avadavat) Amandava amandava
The Red Avadavat, or Red Strawberry Finch as I've always known it, is an absolute gem of a finch. Although of Asian origin they physically exhibit typical waxbill-like features, so much so that if they were from Africa I'm sure they would be widely regarded as one of the classic waxbills. Strawberry Finches have proven themselves to be a very adaptable species broadly occupying much of tropical Asia as well as several successful intentionally introduced populations outside of their natural range. Their secure status in Australian aviaries many decades beyond wild-sourced stock is further evidence of the adaptability of the species. Red Strawberry Finches are the only Estrildid finch species in which the male has a dramatically enhanced nuptial or breeding plumage and a non-breeding or eclipse plumage very similar to the female's typical colouration.
Many years ago both the nominate Indian (A.a.amandava) and "Chinese" (A.a.punicea, actually mainly from Indo-China) pure forms of the species were present in Australian aviaries. The Indian subspecies is more a burnt orange tinge to the male's breeding plumage hence the past use of the name Tiger Finch. Some Australian authors claim that the more common subspecies here was A.a.flavidiventris which also has a characteristically golden-orange tint to the male's breeding plumage. In this subspecies males also exhibit a pale golden belly area contrary to the unambiguously dark belly which is very obvious on every mature captive male Red Strawberry Finch I have ever seen in Australia, so I believe our orange traits originated from A.a.amandava rather than A.a. flavidiventris. The "Chinese" subspecies is a slightly smaller and darker red form with smaller and less prominent white spotting on the male's flanks whilst in breeding plumage and has mostly red rather than black on the lores (between eye and beak). This form was always slightly rarer and the more sought-after of the two subspecies. Today's specimens in Australian aviaries are largely a combination of the two forms with some specimens exhibiting stronger characteristics resembling either of the two subspecies. This variation of natural subspecies characteristics should not be confused with environmental effects which can be significant. The brightness and underlying base colour of the male's nuptial plumage is also largely affected by temperature and sunlight. A male moulting into his breeding coat in a warm sunlit aviary will result in a brighter red colour than if he had coloured in a cooler enclosure devoid of direct sunlight. Such cooler climate birds usually develop a more rusty colour. As stated earlier, towards the end of the breeding season the male moults out of his nuptial plumage into the eclipse plumage which resembles the female. At this time the males can still be identified by pronounced spotting on the rump which hens generally lack.
The above photos show the obvious plumage differences between the sexes during the breeding season.
Red Strawberry Finches share a genetic relationship with the much rarer Green Strawberry Finch (or Green Avadavat) Amandava formosa from India and the more common Orange-Breasted Waxbill Amandava subflava from a large range within Africa. In captivity, I have seen many hybrids between Red Strawberry Finches and Orange-Breasts but I have never seen a hybrid of either species with the Green Strawberry Finch. Perhaps this indicates a closer genetic relationship between the former two despite their distantly separate natural distributions. This highlights the need to avoid housing the two species in the same breeding aviary to prevent production of fertile hybrids which could tarnish the genetic integrity of both species.
Avadavats are the only Estrildid finch species of widespread Asian origin which are neither Munias (Lonchura) nor Parrotfinches (Erythrura). By virtue of their predominantly lush tropical natural range they share certain Lonchura-like habits such as their preference for rank grassy or reedy habitat. This includes an ability to contruct relatively large robust nest structures for such a small species and to proficiently incorporate the structure into growing grasses. This is an obvious adaptation to climates influenced heavily by tropical monsoonal activity. The begging posture of dependent young Avadavats (and Orange-Breasts) whereby the young raise one or both wings vertically is also shared by a couple of African Lonchura species (Rufous-backed & Bronze-winged Mannikins) but no other Estrildid finches that I am aware of. When the aviary does not adequately provide sufficient planted habitat or varied perching diameters to exercise their feet which regularly wears down their toenails, they can tend to become overgrown as do many tropical Munias. Perhaps it was such traits which led to their early common name of Red Munia (and Green Munia for the Green Strawberry Finch).
Despite a lengthy period of domestication in Australia, our aviary stocks remain fairly strictly seasonal Autumn, Winter and early Spring breeders. My male Strawberry Finches moult into their breeding regalia in January which signifies their readiness to commence breeding activities shortly thereafter. The hormonal trigger of the breeding season is very obvious at this time. Both sexes become noticeably more active and the melodious delight of the Strawberry Finch song is a regular sound around the aviaries at this time. The descending trill of the male's courtship call is one of the best musical performances of all the Estrildid finch species. I generally don't allow mine to breed until late February when most of the hot Summer days have passed. By providing them with nesting sites and materials coinciding with commencing regular feeds of livefood a breeding response at this time of year is virtually immediate. By about July most breeding males will be losing their nuptial colours but they generally continue breeding until at least October.
In aviaries Strawberry Finches will readily nest in bunches of dry branches, growing shrubs or grasses. Other man-made nesting receptacles are only used as a last resort in the absence of appropriate vegetation. I find that they distinctly prefer growing grasses as nest sites - every bit as much as my Masked Finches or Pictorellas. My breeding aviaries are planted with perennial seeding grasses and bunches of prickly tea-tree (melaleuca & leptospermum sp.) are placed at various heights for nesting. Other nest receptacles are also present but these are not used by my Strawberry Finches. Given a choice of numerous possible nesting sites in growing grasses and in the dry brush my birds choose to nest in the grasses 90% of the time. Usually when they do nest in the brush it is in the aviaries with less vigorous grass plantings or after I have heavily pruned the grasses. So growing grasses are a clear nest site preference for the species when available to them.
As indicated earlier, the Strawberry Finch nest is a very large and solid construction for such a small finch. The nest itself is also quite distinctive in shape generally exhibiting a flowing beard of additional grasses below the entrance when adequate nesting materials are provided. The nest chamber is heavily lined with soft pale feathers. Emu feathers and stripped Pampas Grass fronds are also highly favoured nest lining materials for them. The male is the main nest builder.
Clutch size varies from 4 to 7 eggs, most often 5. As with other Estrildid species both sexes share the tasks of incubating eggs and brooding the freshly hatched young. The hatchlings have thin white down, dark skin and a small white gape flourescence. Upon fledging the young have dark sooty brown plumage with a couple of distinctive rows of paler brown spots across the wing. They appear very similar to Orange-Breast fledglings but are slightly larger, darker and have the pale brown stripes on the wing which young Orange-Breasts lack. A recently fledged juvenile is pictured below. During the late February to November breeding period my pairs will rear up to 4 clutches of young. Under suitable aviary conditions and diet they can be just as prolific breeders as Orange-breasts. For as long as I can remember it has been accepted that more males than females are produced hence spare females generally command a premium price compared to spare males.
A suitable aviary environment, as for all finches, is a warm and dry aviary. Given their instinctive habitat and nesting preferences, the ideal planting choice for Strawberry Finch aviaries should include some perennial grasses. I always recommend planting aviaries quite sparsely so that plenty of open well-lit floor area remains after the plants reach mature size. This helps to keep aviaries warm and dry especially if they receive plenty of direct sunlight in the planted area. I prefer coarse sand or fine gravel as floor substrate rather than concrete or loamy soil. The sandy or gravelly floor is usually better drained and still allows for healthy aviary plants. Concrete floors are very cold overnight which is not safe for recently fledged young or immobile adult finches. Most non-sandy soils contain too much moisture as well as an enormous range of living organisms from visible invertebrates down to microscopic bacteria, fungi, etc. many of which are potentially harmful sources of infection to finches. So most topsoils are not a good choice for aviary floor substrate.
Dietary needs of Strawberry Finches are identical to those of the African waxbills. The dry seed component of the diet should ideally include a higher proportion of Red Pannicum than the other millets and canary seed. I also provide a small amount of mixed pasture seeds daily which my Strawbs readily enjoy. Especially whilst rearing young they keenly partake of half-ripe grass seedheads & sprouted seed, live termites and lebanese cucumber. I know of other breeders who are achieving excellent regular breeding results with live bushfly maggots as the primary livefood. They will also readily consume mealworms but breeding results are generally not as impressive when mealworms are the main source of insect protein. Natural grit and mineral items such as fine shellgrit, cuttlebone and lightly baked eggshells should be always available to breeding aviaries. I also provide canunda shell, charcoal and other commercially available grit & mineral supplements for additional variety.
As with any other partly insectivorous finch species, regular drenching for intestinal worms is recommended. I preventatively treat my finches via drinking water for worms every 3 months and for coccidiosis after each prolonged period of wet weather. I also use apple cider vinegar in the drinking water at 5ml/litre during and immediately following any rainy and humid weather as a crude preventative against bacterial and other infections. Under this basic preventative health routine Strawberry Finches have consistently proven to be a very hardy species. Their hardiness is further highlighted by the fact that despite their predominantly Winter breeding season many colder climate finch breeders still achieve consistent breeding success with the species.
There are no established colour mutations in Australian aviaries which is notable given the very large number of generations the species has been established in aviculture. Some juveniles emerge from the nest with white wing flight feathers which is a result of dietary deficiency, usually when little or no livefood was available to the parents, not a pied gene. Such birds invariably moult into normal plumage without white feathers by the time they reach adult plumage. Similarly, induced melanism, where dark plumage transposes over normal colour under adverse captive conditions is sometimes also evident in the species. This condition also moults out when diet and environmental conditions improve for the affected bird.
The consistent popularity of the species over many years has seen the aviary status of the Red Strawberry Finch remain totally unaffected by various market fads and whims which at times have significantly jeopardized the status of many less popular species. The combination of attractive plumage & song, active yet placid temperament, hardiness and productive breeding capacity have obviously contributed to its secure position in Australian aviculture. These traits should continue to ensure the sound future of this beautiful bird in our aviaries for many years to come.