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Have you seen a sparrow lately?

By Smita Mishra | Last Updated: Friday, May 21, 2010 - 09:11
Smita Mishra
Salt and Pepper

What would happen if a tree near our home suddenly disappears? If one of the shops across the road vanishes, or a dozen birds living on a building nearby, migrate? Nothing! The din and bustle of our busy lives is too engaging. We would hardly notice.

But what if the tree was a source of rare and valuable medicinal leaves, what if the shop supplied excellent grocery and the birds were indicative of the fact that “All is well” with our environment?

We would be pestered, perturbed and perplexed.

So now that the number of house sparrows has suddenly declined, did we notice? No!

But the halcyon fades when we accede to the fact that disappearance of the humble sparrow from our neighborhood signals that the environment has become so ruthless and brutal that small, sensitive beings are unable to endure it. Think of your tender plants, your lovable pets and even your little child! The water, air and food that killed the tiny sparrows are being consumed by them too!

It is scary and we need to know why the small, plump chirpy little bird chose to silently move away form its favourite habitat - our homes and gardens.

Growing up in a town with the luxury of having a garden, a small pond and innumerable trees, I never realized that the chirps of these tiny creatures could become silent some day. I remember those mornings when I woke up hearing the loud shirk of these miniscule creatures, fighting fiercely among themselves over bizarre trifles and falling down on the verandah, rising again to chase the enemy!

They had made a ventilator on our verandah their permanent abode. When the eggs hatched and the baby birds grew small feathers, the mother dropped them and while half way they fell, desperately flapping their untrained wings, they inevitably would soar just before touching ground! Their mothers taught them flying the tough way. But what an invaluable lesson of life it was!

I remember rescuing a little bird from a mischievous neighbour who had caught the bird and tied a string into its delicate feet. These birds were so much in abundance that we had to guard the grains that we left to dry on terrace, or had to close the kitchen window, lest they would enter and peck on cooked food!

Loud, noisy, naughty and even disturbing, sparrows were so much the part of our lives then. So many summer afternoons were spent simply gazing at the little birds, trying to distinguish between them. Some were small, some big, some leaders and some weaklings and then there were baby birds that you could easily find out as they were the most under confident ones.

But suddenly they are nowhere! Where are all the sparrows gone? What irked them so much that they decided to shun our company altogether?

This problem is not just troubling us, it is in fact being witnessed globally. While in Britain their population has fallen by over 90% in the last 15 years, Paris has lost 2 lakh sparrows in a decade and a half. A sharp fall in their population has been witnessed in China, Czech Republic, Belgium and Netherlands as well.

Rapid urbanization perhaps is their greatest enemy. As home gardens have now become a rarity, worms and insects for the young sparrows have become scarce.

Cutting of trees due to massive construction works, abundant use of poisonous pesticides, severe industrial pollution and loss of natural habitat for them are among other causes of their declining numbers.

Change in the structural design of houses like low ceilings, sliding glass windows, absence of ventilators, lack of alcoves, curves in roofs and safe balconies have made nesting difficult for the tiny birds.

But what is the cause which has threatened their survival so suddenly? The blame is being put on the ubiquitous mobile phone towers. The waves from the tower are capable of destroying the life in eggs as a consequence of which baby sparrows cannot hatch. Also, the unleaded petrol in our vehicles emits poisonous fumes which are very dangerous for delicate life forms.

Gradual decline of traditional grain shops, granaries and warehouses where swarms of birds fed and thrived and the availability of food in plastic bags instead of the conventional gunny bags that made pecking grains easy, has further accentuated trouble for the bitsy birds.

Driving at the main cause of the house sparrow’s decline, it is perhaps the nestling starvation due to an insufficient supply of insect food. This decline in insects is mainly caused by the increase of monoculture crops, the heavy use of pesticides and possibly the introduction of unleaded petroleum which produces toxic compounds such as methyl nitrite which kill the worms on which the baby birds survive.

However, the picture is still not so dismal and the situation not absolutely irreversible. Sparrows are prolific breeders and a little bit of effort can actually turn the situation around.

Examples have been set by several NGO's and clubs for sparrow lovers who have hung small wooden houses on trees, balconies and roof tops with miraculous results. The petite creatures actually returned and made these their nests! Besides these, we can do a little more by sprinkling grains on our verandahs/terrace, keep small pitchers of water and try to plant some greenery in the available space, to give some respite to the goriyas. Minimum use of chemicals in our homes, use of organic pesticides, repellants and cleaners is equally important. This is healthy not just for the birds but for us, humans as well.

If these small steps can win back the teeny, chirpy, feathery bundles to our kitchen windows and fill back our lives with their cute twitters and flutters, the price in return is just trifle.

<i>May 22 is International day for biological diversity</i>

First Published: Friday, May 21, 2010 - 09:11

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