Well before the deadening noise of traffic and the endless layers of dust engulf the busy road beneath the Chiraiyatand flyover in Bihar’s capital, a frail old man wearing a skull cap can be seen feeding birds.
It is Mohammad Haneef’s daily ritual that begins at dawn, when the daylight has scarcely come out, and continues for about an hour. He keeps throwing wheat, grams and bits of apples to hundreds of house sparrows flitting around his fruit shop under the flyover. When the tiny birds fly away after a sumptuous breakfast, he begins his mundane routine of arranging fruits on a cart.
The house sparrow, locally called gauraiya, is an endangered species. Although they have got the exalted status of Bihar’s state bird, they are hardly seen anywhere in the state. But the area around Haneef’s shop is among the handful places where the house sparrows can be found.
Haneef has installed nearly 50 nests for these sparrows around the pillars of the flyover. “Built with discarded fruit cartons, these nests are made comfortable with straw. They serve as the nightly resting place for hundreds of house sparrows,” says the 85-year-old. He has been taking care of these nests for seven years. He replaces the broken ones and keeps fresh straw in them.
Such dedication for preservation of this fast dwindling species has earned the fruit seller of modest means the nick name “bird man”.
Even this place keeps attracting bird lovers and people curious about house sparrows.
“I started all this in 2010, soon after returning from a trip to Mecca and Medina, where I saw thousands of sparrows at one place. That was a scene of complete joy,” said Haneef, who has four sons and three daughters. “My knowledge that this species of birds is on the verge of extinction made me work with more dedication.”
Two of Haneef’s sons, Asim and Naseem, who help him at his fruit shop, equally participate in taking care of the sparrows. “Soon after declaring these birds as state birds in 2013, the government started an awareness drive, but it fizzled out. Individual efforts like my father’s can help save these birds from extinction,” said Naseem.
“Over the years, birds have lost their habitat due to cutting of forests by humans. Birds generally need open habitats, and build nests on trees and in the crevices of walls of houses. But with most homes today lacking ventilators and people using air-conditioners, they have started feeling homeless,” said Arvind Mishra, an ornithologist, who is the state coordinator of Indian Bird Conservation Network.
“Mohammad Haneef has been doing a great work for saving the state bird, his effort needs encouragement from government,” Mishra said.
Haneef has plans to install nests on 10 more pillars under the flyover this year. This time, other shopkeepers have assured him of help.
Though he is not keeping well lately, whenever he sees sparrows in the nests, his face lights up.