The cute little sparrow has been a bird of choice for mothers to allure their children into eating, and has found mention in folklore and songs for ages. But the winged neighbourhood friend is fast disappearing. Sad the sparrow is making a silent exit unable to cope with the modernday challenges posed by man.
Nature watchers and ecologists are sad, and worried. Recent research showing falling numbers of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) points to India needing to urgently protect the species. Dr Neeraj Khera, a Delhi based environment researcher, explains, "The house sparrow is associated with human habitation. Being very sensitive to changes in the environment, it is one of the most preferred indicator species of urban ecosystems. A stable house sparrow population indicates a healthy ecosystem for human beings in terms of air and water quality, vegetation and other parameters of habitat quality. Whereas, a declining population of the bird provides a warning that the urban ecosystem is experiencing some environmental changes unsuitable for human health in the immediate future."
House sparrows also play an important role in the ecological food chain as they help in keeping a check on insects and pests, and serve as a prey base for birds of prey.
Unfortunately, as Mohammad Dilawar, founder and president of the Nature Forever Society, observes, while "hundreds of NGOs and conservation organisations in India are involved in the conservation of the tiger or other such threatened species," the sparrow is hardly given any cognisance as a species that needs to be protected.
Dr Sainudeen Pattazhy, president of the Kerala Environmental Researchers Association (KERA), says the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which currently includes the house sparrow in the 'least concern' category, should in fact enlist it as 'endangered'.
So what are the factors contributing to the decline of sparrow populations?
Dilawar, who heads the Project House Sparrow of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), points to 'urban green deserts' influencing sparrow populations. "Today, our gardens are full of exotic plants which make them green deserts in the urban landscape. These require more chemical fertilisers and pesticides which pollute the environment and also kill insects which results in a serious food shortage for birds which depend on native plants and insects."
The proliferation of mobile phone towers is a factor that Dr Pattazhy, a reader in Zoology in southern Kerala's Punalur, researched visavis sparrow populations in his state last year. He explains, "Birds which nest near towers were found to leave the nest within one week. Incubation lasts for 10 to 14 days. But the eggs laid in nests near towers failed to hatch even after 30 days." And how do the towers that emit a very low frequency of electromagnetic radiation affect the bird? "They can cause thin skulls of chicks and thin egg shells. And microwaves can interfere with their sensors and misguide them while navigating and preying," elucidates Dr Pattazhy. Says Dilawar: "With 3G mobile telephony set to come in, which requires three times more cellphone towers, the impact is beyond imagination."
Dr Khera, currently with InWEntGermany's India program, has researched on urban birds and their habitats in Delhi since 2006. She points to the fact that the house sparrow population has declined in Delhi due to unusual increase in the population of the rock pigeon. This, according to her, is because the rock pigeon has an edge over the sparrow due to its adaptability with regard to its nesting spaces, size and diet that is mainly grains and muchavailable as against the sparrow's that includes highprotein insects, now scarce due to loss of native plants and shrubs.
Decreasing open grasslands, lack of native plant hedges to gardens, use of unleaded petrol, the combustion of which produces toxic compounds that kill small insects, the staple diet of baby sparrows, modern architecture of buildings that are unfriendly for birds' nesting sites, agriculture that is chemical fertiliser and pesticide intensive and adoption of exotic crops are some of the other factors contributing to waning sparrow numbers.
But all is not lost as the species has not yet vanished for good.
So how is the house sparrow going to be protected? How will the species have safe havens to live in and multiply?
It is evident that opting for native plants, trees, shrubs and agricultural crops and adopting organic practices in farms and gardens, replacing chemical fertilisers and pesticides with organic ones, is vital to conserving common flora and fauna.
Dr Pattazhy, based on his research, says that the government must take steps to "control the unscientific proliferation of towers across our country." He suggests, "Sharing of towers by different companies should be encouraged, if not mandated. To prevent overlapping high radiation fields, new towers should not be permitted within a radius of one kilometre of existing towers."
The Nature Forever Society was, in fact, set up with "a mission and mandate to save the house sparrow and common flora and fauna." And Dilawar was listed in the Time magazine's annual Heroes of the Environment in 2008 for his initiative to protect house sparrows. Besides creating awareness on the issue, the Nature Forever Society has, through an innovative initiative, involved the common man so that hundreds of people have adopted nest boxes and feeders for house sparrows. Says Dilawar, "This helps in creating an emotional attachment between the people and house sparrows. The house sparrow, unlike a tiger or other forestdwelling species, is found around human habitation. It is man whose house provides the sparrow with nest place, food and other ecological needs. So the sparrows will not be able to survive without the support of their oldest companion."
The latest initiative of the Nature Forever Society was observing the World House Sparrow Day on March 20 this year. In its very inaugural year it was celebrated across the country and the world, with other partner organisations. The aim of the event, says Dilawar, was to create awareness on the issue and to bring all individuals and organisations working on the conservation of house sparrows and urban biodiversity on a common platform. It was also to draw the attention of governments and the scientific community on the issue.
- The writer is a poet and freelance journalist based in Delhi. email@example.com