Not a trick question – the origins of this favourite hardbill are controversial. Tony Edwards brings us up to date
London Zoo is reported to have imported two white Bengalese in 1860, and other zoos in Europe followed shortly. In addition to the white Bengalese, chocolate-and-white and fawn-and-white also became available. Keeping and breeding them was and is quite easy, so by the end of the 19th century, Bengalese were fully established in European aviculture. However, since none of the varieties just mentioned resemble wild Lonchura species, it is understandable that their origin was not clear.
Expert opinion has it that the species that gave rise to the Bengalese is the white-rumped munia (Lonchura striata), and more precisely the subspecies swinhoei from southern China. (Other names for the white-rumped munia include sharp-tailed, white-backed and striated munia.) There may be as many as seven subspecies of this species, ranging from India across South-East Asia to Taiwan. The Bengalese is called L.s. domestica by some authors, and just L. domestica by others.
Unfortunately, the history of classification of the white-rumped munia appears to have caused confusion. At one time the sharp-tailed finch (L. acuticauda) was identified as a separate species to the striated finch (L. striata) but today they are identified as subspecies of the same species (L. striata). The subspecies swinhoei has been described as a sharp-tailed of Chinese origin.
There was little recorded information about the Bengalese origin until an article in the Avicultural Society magazine in 1922 by the Japanese Prince N. Taka-Tsukasa, who stated that the ancestors had been exported from China to Japan some 200 years earlier.
I am not aware of any documents that describe the status of the white-rumped munia in Chinese aviculture before it was exported to Japan. It’s intriguing, though – why should a little bird, not noted for it melodic song or coloration, have been chosen as a species to be established in aviculture? Clearly, its temperament and ability to survive on a basic seed diet would have helped, but I wonder whether the first examples actually carried pied markings, which would have set the birds apart from other species.
Writing in the Avicultural Society magazine in 1957, Erica Eisner presented a very strong case that the Bengalese was the sharp-tailed munia from China, but sadly her work was not known by some authors. I am unaware of anyone who has studied the Bengalese more than Eisner. I first became familiar with Eisner when I read her paper The Biology of the Bengalese Finch (1960).
In his excellent book Estrildid Finches of the World (1982), Derek Goodwin identifies the Bengalese finch as being from the acuticauda group of subspecies of white-rumped munia and observes that the self chocolate Bengalese birds resemble the wild L.s. swinhoei. Restall also identifies the Bengalese as being the white-rumped munia, almost certainly the Chinese race swinhoei.
Reinforcement of this view came from James Buchan, a past chairman of the National Bengalese Fanciers’ Association (NBFA). In his book The Bengalese Finch (1976), Buchan compared a couple of white-rumped munias to his self chocolate Bengalese and concluded that the Bengalese was a domesticated form of Lonchura striata acuticauda. But he also added that possibly it was the result of inter-breeding of two or more subspecies.
Society Finches by Mervin F. Roberts (1979) includes two pages referencing the findings of Eisner. Roberts states that she compared the characteristics of Bengalese finches to wild striated finches and sharp-tailed finches and found that the Bengalese had all the characteristics of sharp-tailed and none of striated. When she compared skins at the British Museum with her own live birds, she concluded that the ancestral stock had come from China or Taiwan.
To date I have only seen one study that included DNA analysis of the Bengalese. This concluded, comparing it to the white-rumped munia and other species, that Bengalese, both European and Japanese, were closely related to the white-rumped munia, specifically a sub-population from South-East Asia.
So where does the view that the Bengalese is a hybrid of various species come from? The internet today is full of references that give the Bengalese origins as a hybrid. I have not seen the book, but it is stated that A.G. Butler in Foreign Finches in Captivity (1894) indicated the Bengalese was of hybrid origin (Indian silverbill and white-rumped munia). Later, however Butler changed his mind, sadly with a smaller audience.
Cyril Rogers, in his Encyclopaedia of Cage and Aviary Birds (1975), stated that the Bengalese was a result of hybridising several species, one of which was thought to be the sharp-tailed finch. He also stated that a great authority in birdkeeping at that time thought that striated finches, sharp-tailed finches and silverbills were involved.
Threats from interbreeding
Other books in my small collection say that Bengalese are hybrids, but either don’t name the parent species, or state that they are the striated finch and the sharp-tailed finch – now regarded as the same species.
So what of the status of the Bengalese today? It is known that many Bengalese are fertile hybrids. Goodwin expressed concern that the traits may be lost if interbreeding occurred with other Lonchura species, yet now this is a widespread practice among fanciers on the Continent. Restall also noted that in recent years there has been much cross-breeding with other species of munia, in particular the black mannikin (L. stygia).
Panjer and Wigmore, in The Bengalese Finch (2002), wrote that German breeders had used various other Lonchura species to hybridise with Bengalese. One stud had used the white-headed nun (L. maja), and Panjer had himself used the black-headed nun (L. malacca atricapilla). The continental self birds are particularly notable for their dark coloration and well-defined shelling. These self birds have had a major influence on UK selfs, so I would expect most quality selfs in the UK to have hybrid origins.
There is little benefit, if any, to be gained from using birds with hybrid origins in breeding some of the UK established mutations, such as pink-eyed whites (albinos) and dilute fawn-and-whites. This would also be true for Bengalese bred specifically for fostering other species.
To sum up, I can find no firm evidence for the hybrid-origin theory and continue to favour L. s. swinhoei as the Bengalese’s ancestor. Will the truth ever be proved? It lies, surely, in the hands of DNA researchers, who may one day place this intriguing bird in its rightful place on the evolutionary map.
Tony Edwards is vice chairman of the National Bengalese Fanciers Association.
Essential reading: ANYONE interested in Lonchura species should not be without Robin Restall’s book Munias and Mannikins (Pica Press, 2000).
Restall’s knowledge is based on detailed study during many years while working and travelling throughout the Lonchura heartlands. He clearly defines the characteristics and ranges of the various subspecies.