“A little cock sparrow sat on a tree,
And he chirrupped and he chirrupped so merrily.”
Delhi is not known for its long spell of rains. Its rainy season brings no nostalgia, neither it inspires the poets to write songs on the magical effects of rain as experienced in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra or in the deep interiors of rural Bengal.
No one will have a Delhi dream on conjuring up another ‘Meghadootam’ here, or celebrate ‘Varshamangal’!
Like the predominant environment of Babudom here, the annual rainy season is just another routine affair or rather a formality.
The Rathayatra festival in Delhi remained almost unknown. There were big photographs of Eid festivities and multiple narratives in the newspapers, but most of the newspapers overlooked this Chariot festival synonymous with the rainy season. A few who had devoted small news items, mostly narrated how Rathayatra procession had created traffic jam and lots of difficulties, etc. etc.!
Rain still happens in Delhi, after the drawn-out summer. In the last fortnight, there was fair amount of downpower that has drenched the perched city. Last week, I suddenly woke up with the sound of rain in the morning …and when I went to the Balcony, a familiar sound, not heard in years, totally surprised me. Yes, in the big tree in front of my balcony…there were a couple of sparrows. The little birds, chirping and frolicking in the mild rain!
I have not seen sparrows, for the last many years in Delhi.
Where Had They Gone?
One of the fond memories of our childhood is all about seeing a few tiny sparrows frolicking in the courtyard or around the balcony, searching for grains of millet , wheat or rice. They were chirping all the time, cavorting and knowing not a moment of stillness. The mother bird, always busy nibbling scattered corns, or helping the little ones in finding food, while the father with dark brown feathers would keep a watch silently. They were easily visible on the trees, around the balconies, in the gardens and on the walls. They were ubiquitous, in the cities, till in the seventies , or even in early eighties. Their name Gairiya was not known to many kids, they were simply known as “Chidiya”.
The other birds were identifiable as crows, pigeons or even parrots, but house sparrows were always fondly known as Chidiyas. Scientifically though, they are called: Passer domesticus.
Delhi became more populated after the Asiad Games in late seventies. More and more colonies sprang up. The green areas of the city disappeared one by one, residential colonies and shopping complexes ate up the open spaces. More vehicles, more pollution, more noise and more heat engulfed the city. This city was a rural setting only half a century back, with its vast open spaces, green expanses, trees and water bodies. Suddenly, the friendly tiny creatures started disappearing from the city.
Today, we find hordes of pigeons in every locality, people feeding them in public places to gain some good Karma, but the once-abundant house sparrows were nowhere. In the cities, the concrete edifices have taken place of traditional homes and open spaces for other species. Even the affluent have grown manicured lawns, trimmed shrubs and creepers but hardly grow trees. For many children now, a sparrow is just a picture in their nature book! And this is not just in Delhi, it’s everywhere.
The ornithologists are alarmed by the decrease in house sparrow population in Mumbai. Bangalore, Singapore, London, Amsterdam, Toronto and other big cities like Delhi, after around 10,000 years of having these birds and humans live together now see a decrease.
The sparrow’s dwindling numbers are a concern to ecologists and nature lovers alike. Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, and others are pondering on its disappearance from their urban areas.
In the UK,its well documented, where the sparrow population has reduced by 66% between 1966 and 2012.
In Mumbai, a survey in 2013 had disclosed that the sparrow population has shrunk to almost 75-80%in the last decades. Since 2005, there has been an almost 60% decline in sparrow clusters in the city.
Renowned ornithologist Dr Salim Ali’s autobiography ‘The Fall Of A Sparrow’ is synonymous with Mumbai’s bird watching .
Those who lived near Malabar Hills, in Andheri’s Bhavan’s College, on IIT Campus at Powai or even in Kharghar, 20-years back, must have seen large number of chirpy flocks of sparrows, grooving, or returning home in the evening.
Bird lovers say that rapid urbanisation, growing pollution, mushrooming of skyscrapers, loss of traditional dwelling units and the radiation from innumerable cell phone towers has drastically affected the birds’ population .
‘Nature Forever Society’ (NFS) is a non-profit organisation in Mumbai and many other cities of Maharashtra, has been running a Campaign to involve people in conservation, and more specifically, to save the house sparrows, since the year 2006.
Twenty years ago in Bangalore, there were 25,000 sparrows per square kilometre. Over the years, their numbers waned, as the concrete jungle spread its presence. Five years ago, the numbers went down further to 600 sparrows per square kilometre. Now their numbers are only 50 per square kilometre, according to Dr. Harish Narayan, a wild life conservationist, who in 2010, launched the campaign,’ Bring Back The Sparrow’, in Bangalore.
Is Radiation Killing Them?
In 2008,while collecting materials for one of my articles for an environmental magazine, I found that there were scores of studies on the decline of house sparrow population, relating it to the mushrooming of Cell Phone Towers around the localities in the cities. There are several British and Swiss researches, which had established the fact through field studies.
The Cell Phone Towers emit harmful non-ionised radiation, round the clock, which are suspected having effects not only on birds, but on human nervous and reproductive systems too. Many big cities in the world have already banned erecting of Cell Phone Towers in and around densely populated localities.
In Delhi, it was also the norm to install such towers within localities. But here, “Sab Chalta Hai” is the key approach, so you see them everywhere. Also, many Cell Phone Tower installations are now coming with clever camouflages like trees and decorated towers!
The Mobile or Cell PhoneS Companies everywhere are multinational entities. They have deep pockets. So there are too many sponsored research projects , ‘proving’ that the Cell Phone Towers have no effect and they emit no harmful radiation at all! Various Research Bodies, Universities and Scientists are paid hefty sums to churn out research findings, favouring the Mobile companies worldwide!
Though it may not be the gospel truth, but bird lovers, bird watchers and ornithologists mostly believe that the mushrooming of Cell Phone Towers in the cities, in the last 10-15 years must have someway affected the dwindling sparrow population in our cities.
As a concern over the vanishing sparrows, all over the globe, 20 March every year is being celebrated as the ‘World Sparrow Day’. There are 24 sparrow species of which the House sparrow is the only one found in India.
House sparrows are popularly known by their local names . In Indian languages: Gairaiya (Hindi), Chimni/Chiu (Marathi), Chakli (Gujarati), Charai(Bengali) , they in our beliefs and folklores, are associated with fertility, slickness, courtship, persistence, familiarity, and domesticity.
Scientists believe that sparrows are originally from the Middle East and went on to occupy parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa, first. These house sparrows can’t live in rainforests, or even in hostile forest environ, extremely cold regions or in deserts. They mostly thrive in the comfortably dry and humid areas like India.
They have been introduced into the North and South Americas, Western Africa, Australia, New Zealand and many islands of the Pacific in the recent years. In the USA,it was carried across the Atlantic in mid-19th century, to help clean up green inchworms from the trees of New York’s Central Park. They now have an universal presence, except the deserts or in the polar regions.
Sparrows, though small, are very sensitive and intensely immune birds, which have lived with the humans for aeons.
Their sudden disappearance is perceived as ecological indicator, which is a warning to human beings about looming environmental hazards.
Encouraged by ecologists, bird lovers and environmentalists, the then-Chief Minister of Delhi , Sheila Dikshit had adopted the House Sparrow as Delhi’s “State Bird”, in the year 2012, acknowledging the crisis and promising to make sure that the tiny creature “returns, feels safe and is able to live peacefully in the city”.
Working For Sparrows
In Mumbai, Dharavi-based group, ‘Sparrow’s Shelter’ has installed more than 50,000 ‘nest boxes’ across the city, constructed a ‘bird gallery’ in Vakola’s Madhukar Rao Sarpotdar Garden. It has 25 bird shelters, many plants that considered as sparrow’s natural habitat, and a protective mesh too, that keeps predators away!
Nikita Pimpale’s ‘Kidz Green Klub’ runs programmes for children at Borivali’s ‘Sanjay Gandhi National Park’.
In their nature walks with kids, they share facts about the dwindling sparrow population and ask them to observe bird’s life patterns around their homes. They also encourage them to come up with ideas to save the sparrow and discuss the issue with their parents at home. Pimpale says, “These are small steps, but we hope , they will lead to better awareness”.
‘Mahiru Foundation’, an NGO working for the cause in Junagadh, Gujarat is supplying readymade nests for the sparrows, throughout India. In Madurai, Tamil Nadu, M.Rajesh, the Professor of Zoology at The American College there taking a number of steps from area wise birds survey, to educating people and distributing nests for the sparrows, says, “the population of sparrows can be enhanced through such small efforts on a regular basis.”
A study conducted in Sivakasi by Balaji, a research scholar at ‘Ayya Nadar Janaki Ammal College’, said that the sparrows prefer artificial nests. “Sparrow is a bird that lives around human habitations. They don’t build nests on trees like other birds. They are dependent on human beings. They choose safe corners, lofts, pipes, and boxes”. He says, “Earlier, the women used to dry grains on the terrace and drawmaakolam (kolam with rice flour) on their doorsteps and the sparrows used to found their food there.” Unfortunately, people have no spare space left at their homes, nowadays.
Environmentalists are saying that the rapid changes in human lifestyles in urban areas are gradually becoming more and more incompatible with the traditional lifestyles of the sparrows. In fact, the house sparrows are one among the several other species of birds and biodiversity that have been declining in numbers for the past 50/60 years.
The vanishing of sparrows , as they are closer to humans , is easily noticeable. Sparrows, in fact, started disappearing from cities for quite some time now. Rachel Carson in her 1962’s award winning book, ‘Silent Spring’, warned that the chemical pesticides being used extensively since the 1930s were tending to be “biocides” , killing not just insects , but harming all lives, including the human beings. Unless all these “elixirs of death” as Carson named them, are controlled , sparrows, or for that matter any other species, can’t be stopped from falling in numbers or becoming completely extinct!
The vertical growth of Indian cities is growingly disastrous for the birds, as big cities of Europe and the USA have already seen. According to ‘Fatal Light Awareness Program’, thousands of birds die every year in North American cities by hitting the skyscrapers, mistaking their reflective windows for open sky!
One can’t demolish or stop building the skyscrapers, so many modern cities are bringing laws to make them bird-friendly by taking appropriate measures.
As fields, bushes, tree clusters, marshes and the water bodies disappearing and they are being replaced by concrete urban dwellings, watertight pavements and metalled roads, the biodiversity is seriously affected. In this changing environ, only a few habitants of the erstwhile eco-system are able to survive. With no regular food or safe nesting, birds are perishing or moving to more friendly habitats out of the cities.
There is Hope Too
The sparrows are coming back to the cities, though in small numbers, is really good news.
According to ‘Nature Forever’ founder and President Mohammed Dilawar, the common sparrow is like the “common man” of India. It gives ordinary city-dwellers an intimate and otherwise unattainable link to the country’s rich wildlife. “For them the sparrow is the only connect with nature,”
Chinese Supremo Mao Zedong’s “Great Sparrow Campaign” during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ move around 50 years ago, labelled sparrows as one of four pests to be eliminated because they eat grain, people’s precious share of food! But he had also ignored the fact that, sparrows also feed on worms and insects, and their near-extermination probably led to the calamitous Chinese famine followed.
In India, however there is no dictatorial erroneous policy. Sparrows may not become extinct here, but being resilient, the existing numbers may move to safer areas , to the suburban or rural fields, feed at rural granaries, market places, urban port areas and rail stockyards, nest at nearby sites and adapt to grow their decreasing population.
As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest nor the most intelligent that will survive but those that can adapt to changes.” Sparrows are so adaptive that “not one of them shall fall to the ground.”
On the other hand , the American Visionary of Bio-Diversity, Edward Wilson, have viewed the future as after the annihilation of the entire biodiversity on earth, humans, left alone like the child of divorced parents!
For the humans, it’ll be an era of emotional aloneness ,what he calls the “Eremozoic Era” or the Age of Loneliness.
No one of us wants to live in that era. Let the chirping sparrows survive, for the survival of humankind.
By Deep Basu