Save the house sparrow

Boisterous, perky, pesky house sparrows, once a common sight, are now rapidly disappearing, not only in India but worldwide. Rapid urbanisation has contributed to the decline in the house sparrow’s population. But the trend can be reversed if we are more caring

Most of us would remember a time when sparrows were part of our everyday life — there were so many of them that their presence bordered on being irksome. They chattered incessantly; they made our homes theirs — hunting for nooks and corners where they could set up house. Determined little creatures they were too, for once they made up their mind to take up residence nothing could dissuade them.

An upside-down lamp shade in our dining room was a particular favourite, as was the crevice behind a painting. They were up before dawn and no sooner had we thrown the door open, they would rush in,indignant at being denied right of passage and in a major hurry to begin the day’s work.

Their energy was tiresome to behold. As the day wore on, the busy little pair did not let up, flying to and fro carrying straw, grass and such other necessities that go into making the prefect sparrow home. Their beaks would be overloaded — one could have fed a horse and kept him happy on the amount they carried — and most of it would tumble out and mess the floor.

We made half-hearted attempts to get rid of the nests, but we could never quite do it. Their distress calls, when they saw their home had been swept clean, would melt our hearts, as did their fierce determination. For no sooner had we removed the nest, they would be back at it again with renewed energy.

The problem was the heat. If the birds were in, the ceiling fan was out. Ceiling fans are murderous predators and can cruelly cut the flight of these diminutive birds. It happened once when a noisy creature, flying exuberantly across the room to meet his equally voluble mate, was brutally chopped in two. It was a grisly sight with blood spattered on the floor and the wall. Worse, his bewildered ‘wife’ circled over the still body, chirping plaintively.

That was it.

After this tragedy, a new law prevailed at our home: Fans were not to be switched on under any circumstances, whatever the provocation, no matter how high the mercury shot up. Defeated, we suffered the heat and the sparrows were given the right of way, albeit amid much grumbling.

I do not know when they disappeared, but suddenly the fans ran from spring through summer, the floor sparkled unlittered with bits of grass and other more messy, icky stuff, and the air was devoid of cheery bird calls.

We missed them.

Later, much later, I was to realise that the ‘common’ house sparrow hadn’t done the vanishing act just at our home, it was a worldwide phenomenon. Studies in the UK have shown that the house sparrow population has declined by more than 65 per cent, and the same trend has been observed in India. In fact, an ornithological survey conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has confirmed that the sparrow population in Andhra Pradesh has dropped by 80 per cent; in Gujarat and Rajasthan, it has declined by 20 per cent. The loss in many coastal areas is also estimated to be about 70 per cent.

Who would have ever thought that the tribe of the boisterous, perky, pesky house sparrow, once a common sight, is now on the decline? How come we never noticed? Or cared? How could we let this bird, so much a part of our lives, vanish forever?

There are many reasons attributed to the decline: Sprawling bungalows with their nooks and crannies have given way to high rises and malls; instead of hedges-a good dining spot and ideal for roosting-we now have wrought iron or barbed wire fences; there are no messy shrubs and bushes in gardens, just manicured lawns with exotic plants sprayed and covered with poisonous pesticide that does neither the bird or anyone else any good. Once, women would gather together for a good gossip as they cleaned grains in the courtyard-dropping some inevitably for a hungry bird. Now, grains come clean and plastic-wrapped from the nearest Big Bazaar. Other theories indicate that electromagnetic contamination from cellphone towers can be lethal for sparrows while unleaded petrol and pesticide kill insects on which baby sparrows are raised.

Help to the once ubiquitous bird now comes from one Nasik-based Mohammed Dilawar, who has taken up the sparrow’s cause rather than wait for the Government to wake up from its slumber. “The sparrow,” says Dilawar, “is to urban ecosystems what the canary was to mines.That it is dying out means our cities are in trouble”. He has decided to help this hardy little creature, besides studying the sparrow, increasing awareness, working with builders to provide for more bird-friendly colonies. He has been making and selling wooden nest boxes on a nonprofit basis. There are other organisations that make and distribute bird nests, or you could just break an earthen pot and fix it on your wall in the garden/balcony,leaving the mouth as an ‘entry’ for the birds.

As for my home, the birds are back again. With a little help of course. We have provided for a good dining table with birdseed, rice (i find they prefer the boiled variety), etc, and water for a bird bath. There are provisions for a sauna too; a mud bath where an entire flock wallows in the dust and generally brings the house down with the din.

The best part is the fans run too. Thanks to the nest boxes, lined with some straw, the birds have changed address. That awful cranny behind the painting was pokey; they prefer their swanky new living quarters where board and lodging are free.

On Saturday, March 20, World House Sparrow Day, take the plunge and help save the sparrow from vanishing from our world.

In The Pioneer on March 19, 2010

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