The sparrow is a hardy little creature — I have seen it on the 20th floor of a building, and it has been spotted breeding in the pits of coal mines in Yorkshire. It will nest anywhere - in tiny nooks and crevices, the opening of a pipe, that little space behind the street lamp. It can be found in the Americas, Europe, most of Asia having hitched a ride in ancient ships and made alien countries their home. Once a common sight, boisterous, perky, pesky house sparrows are now rapidly disappearing, not only from India but worldwide.
Rapid urbanisation and the all-pervasive use of pesticide has contributed to the decline in the house sparrow’s population. But if we do the right things, we can reverse 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 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 otherwise. An upside-down lamp shade in our dining-room was a particular favourite - as was the crevice behind a painting.
They were up before the 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 began 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 forth carrying straw, grass, twigs and such other matter that go into making the prefect sparrow home.
Their beaks were stuffed – 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 annihilate the nests, but we could never quite do it. Their distressed calls — when they saw that their home had been swept clean, melted our hearts, as did their fierce determination, for no sooner had we mopped up the nest, they were back at it again with a renewed vengeance.
The problem was the heat, if the birds were in, the fan was out. The whirling blades of the fans could brutally chop of these diminutive birds. It happened once... one tiny little being flying exuberantly across the room to meet its mate was slashed into two. It was grisly, blood spattered on the floor and across the wall. Worse, its bewildered mate circled over the still body, chirping plaintively.
That was it. Post this tragedy, the family passed the Sparrow (and other home-dwelling birds) Protection Act. As per which 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 right of way, albeit amidst much grumbling.
I do not know when they disappeared, but suddenly the fans ran from spring through to the summer, the floor sparkled unlittered with bits of grasses and other more messy, icky stuff, and the air devoid of cheery bird calls, fell silent and lonely.
We missed them.
This phenomenon was common, the house sparrow hadn’t just done the vanishing act in our home, it was a worldwide phenomenon. In England, breeding pairs are estimated to have declined by 50 per cent, while in some urban areas the losses are well over 90 per cent.
In fact, an ornithological survey conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research confirmed that sparrow population in Andhra Pradesh had dropped by 80 per cent, in coastal areas the drop was similar and in other states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, it had dipped by 20 per cent.
Who would have thought that this boisterous, perky, pesky house sparrow, once so common was now on the decline? How had we not noticed? Or cared? How could we let this bird, so much part of our lives, vanish forever?
There are many reasons attributed to the decline — sprawling bungalows with their nooks and crannies which were prime real estate for the birds are being demolished. The high rises - and other such modern architecture leaves little room for nesting. There are no messy shrubs and bushes in gardens just manicured lawns with exotic plants — sprayed and covered with pesticides that does the bird - or anyone else - little good. Grasslands and other such green spaces in cities are also vanishing, taking with them a host of small animal life, including sparrows.
There are other things: remember the time when the neighbourhood ladies had a gossip while they cleaned wheat and other grains? Sparrows hung around to snatch away a bit. Wheat, or rather flour, is now delivered, neatly packed and ready-to-use, and that is an opportunity lost for many a hungry bird. One major cause of decline has been linked to pesticides, and even use of unleaded petrol, and other air pollution - which also kills insects and such like which sparrows feed on.
As for my home...the damn birds are back again. With a little help of course - we have provided for a good dining table with bird seed, broken rice etc and water for a bird bath. There are provisions for a sauna too, a mud bath where an entire community wallows in the dust and generally brings the house down with their din.
The best part is, the fans run too. Thanks to the nest boxes, lined with some straw the birds have changed addresses — that awful cranny behind the painting was pokey, they prefer their swanky new living quarters - boarding and lodging free.
This March 20, World House Sparrow Day, take the plunge, and help save the Passer domesticus from vanishing from our world.
(A version of the article was first published in The Pioneer in 2010.)