By CYNTHIA ROBERTSON | Mission Times Courier
I’m always looking out my window, even as I’m writing articles like this one. Ours is a quiet neighborhood, but we do get a lot of action from our feathered friends. As I nearly always have birdseed mix out for the doves, house finches and white-crowned sparrows, as well as nectar feeders for the hummingbirds, I recognize many regulars who come around. So it was a real stumper for me when several visitors appeared in our Cassia splendida tree scoping out the yard and then finally flying in, one by one, to the birdseed tray.
I picked up my camera and zoomed in on the new birds. They had an interesting pattern on their chest and stomach and a russet color on their backs. Their thick beaks clued me in that the birds were finches of some kind. I had never seen them around but remembered seeing somebody’s post on one of the local Facebook photography groups about a finch that was now prevalent in San Diego. Try as I did, I could not again locate that post about the bird.
I gave in — until the next day the new birds showed up again. They were cute little guys, watching out for each other in the tree before they made a silent decision to fly together to the tray. They were very amicable among each other. I found it difficult to return to my writing. I was so enthralled with their behavior and appearance.
In my online research, I discovered that the birds had three different names: spice finch, nutmeg mannikin, and scaly-breasted munia. It is a cage bird, one that people buy as a pet, and whose native habitat is India. What’s more, I found out that the bird has been added to the official California Bird List.
I asked a few people in the bird-watching community for information. Wendy Esterly, known for her expertise in bird photography around Mission Trails Regional Park, reported that she, too, had seen them.
“The scaly-breasted munia’s population has certainly increased locally,” Esterly said.
A professor emeritus of geography at SDSU, Phil Pryde, who is also an Audubon Society member and author of the well-acclaimed “San Diego: An Introduction to the Region,” is well-versed in bird knowledge. Pryde explained to me that the finch’s proper name is scaly-breasted munia. The bird used to be called nutmeg mannikin in the United States before it was introduced here.
“When it became common in the San Diego area, it was decided to change its official name in the United States to what it is called in the rest of the world. The other two names, as far as I know, are today used only in the pet trade,” Pryde said, who recommended Phil Unitt at the San Diego Natural History Museum for more detailed information.
Unitt did indeed have a wealth of knowledge about the bird. He is a specialist in subspecies identification of California birds and author of “The San Diego County Bird Atlas,” “The Birds of San Diego County” and editor of Western Birds, the regional journal of ornithology for western North America.
He explained that the scaly-breasted munia has been seen in Southern California since the 1980s and was known to be nesting in the wild from at least 1997 onward. By 2014, it had met the California Bird Records Committee’s criterion of nesting in the wild for at least 15 years, as well as having an increasing population covering a substantial geographic area.
Although the Bird Records Committee has no explicit criterion for the size of a population in order for it to admit a new exotic species to the California list, by now the population of the scaly-breasted munia is several thousand. “So it clearly has cleared however high a bar could have been set for it,” Unitt said.
I knew that whenever a new bird is introduced into a habitat, there is always danger of it affecting the ecology, so I asked Unitt about that.
“There isn’t any evidence, to my knowledge, of the scaly-breasted munia causing environmental disruption — yet. It feeds principally on the seeds of grasses that are themselves exotic and has spread so far out of urban areas and into natural habitats to only a minor extent, though last year I saw a flock in a natural wetland near Warner Springs,” Unitt said.
The munia is not alone in its preference for seeds of exotic grasses and weeds like the sow thistle. The native house finch and lesser goldfinch also feed on them. Right now, the plants are plentiful, and so there is no competition among the birds for food supply.
Unitt explained that the scaly-breasted munia is a species of the family Estrildidae, which contains about 140 species native to Africa, southern Asia, Australia, New Guinea, and smaller islands of the southwestern Pacific. Many are called “finches.” When Unitt saw munias building nests last month, it surprised him.
“No details on the species’ nesting cycle in California has been published to my knowledge, so I don’t know how typical this is, but given the munia’s explosive increase in California these past few years, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were breeding year round,” Unitt said.
When I mentioned how sociable the scaly-breasted munia appeared to be among themselves, Unitt agreed. “Yes, the scaly-breasted munia is highly gregarious, at least when not breeding. From what I have seen the breeding birds associate in pairs, but I doubt that they are very territorial.
“That said, I don’t think the species’ biology is well known. Certainly very little has been published on it,” he continued.
So, with my camera, computer and plenty of birdseed just outside of my window, I get to have my own research station on these sweet-natured little birds once captured for use as pets. The scaly-breasted munia is now included on my own list of what I call my outdoor pets.
— Cynthia Robertson has been a local freelance writer and photographer for more than 30 years. She is also the author of a novel, “Where You See Forever.” Her website is www.cynthiarobertson.com.