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Tuesday 16 September 2014
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Calling back the sparrow

Mohammed Dilawar is on a mission to bring back the sparrow. He likens this doughty bird to the common man: Crucial to the issue but often overlooked, writes Benita Sen

Lost home:  A rare sight of a sparrow perched on a balcony. DH photo

Lost home:  A rare sight of a sparrow perched on a balcony. DH photoFive years is not a long span in the march of time. But for the House Sparrow, it has been. Till March 2001, they were in and out of our Delhi home. We left for a while to return to see, the commonest bird had flown the nest. Most parts of Bangalore, one gathers, are luckier. They still have the sparrow. But for how long?

Around the world, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus), is fast disappearing from urban areas that have been its home for thousands of years. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests launched a three-year project to study the sparrow. It is headed by researcher and environmentalist Mohammed E Dilawar of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). In 2008, Time selected him as a hero of the environment. Collaborating with BNHS, Eco-Sys Action Foundation (France), Avon Wildlife Trust (UK) Nature Forever Society, which he started, celebrated March 20 as the first World House Sparrow Day in Delhi at chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s residence. In the heart of green Lutyen’s Delhi, sadly, the sparrows have disappeared from Dikshit’s neighbourhood too.
But all may not yet be lost if action is taken to reverse the slide. After all, the sparrow has lived around human settlements. It has been happy to nest in crevices and under the eaves, picking on the leftovers after the grain has been cleaned or darting in and out of the shrubs, nibbling at wild grass seeds at the edge of the field.

Bird man: Mohammed DilawarMohammed Dilawar’s current passion was triggered off by a research paper from the UK reporting the decline in the number of house sparrows. “I realised it was happening in India also.” When he began researching the sparrow in India, there was hardly any material on the status of the bird because it was considered so common. He likens this doughty bird to the common man in India: Crucial to the issue but often overlooked. “The sparrow has suffered neglect because it was so common. It has been taken for granted and little thought has gone into the fact that it is an important bioindicator of the state of our environment.”


Although the decline has been noted across the world, there is little data on the status of house sparrows in India before the project began. “We have no common bird monitoring system,” rues Mohammed Dilawar. In countries like the UK statistical data shows a decline rate of 67 per cent because of which its conservation status has been changed to a red listed species of high conservation concern. Thankfully, the sparrow is not on the blink globally. The IUCN still considers it a species of least conservation status. But the alarm bells have begun to ring. In the UK, it is on the red list (high conservation concern), after its rapid decline over the past 25 years.

So, what has gone wrong suddenly? Says Mohammed, “The reasons are several. There has been a sudden change in several areas of our living.” New developments in architecture may have given us chrome-and-glass buildings and spanking apartment structures, but it has robbed birds like the mynah and sparrow of traditional nesting sites. Microwave towers may have led to harmful radiation.

Seemingly innocuous changes in lifestyle have been terrible news for the house sparrow. House sparrows are happy to eat a wide range of food, including seeds, scraps, berries, leaves, buds and insects. But even such an eclectic diet has not been good enough to ensure its survival. Its food reserves have gone down with most urban households buying packaged, clean-and-picked grains. Rampant use of pesticides in fields and gardens have killed off insects and may be killing sparrows feeding on the grain, the berries and the insects.

The urban garden landscape is also changing. There are fewer green patches in cities and far less shrubbery. Most of what is left is landscaped to clinical precision, pruned and lacks the cover that sparrows and insects need. These hedges often introduced species that do not provide sparrows the berries that their ancestors fed off local shrubs. The more we manicure our lawns and ‘manage’ our gardens, the fewer the insects left for birds to feed on. Says Mohammed Dilawar, “The trend of replacing native lawns with exotic ones had deprived birds like the house sparrow of wild seeds which formed an important source of food.” So, do you give up your manicured lawn? If you ask him, he’d advise, let some desi long grass grow along the borders. This will give the sparrow its diet of seeds and insects.

The people of London got around to save the sparrow, providing it feeders and nest boxes. But we have a long way to go in the effort to save mankind’s age-old avian neighbour. “Most of us don’t even realise birds like house sparrows and mynas are also protected by the Wildlife Act of India,” points out Mohammed Dilawar.  
Each of us could make several thoughtful additions in our homes to tell the sparrow that it is welcome. Otherwise, as reports of World House Sparrow Day celebrations indicated, we may soon have to breed sparrows artificially.  

Welcome flutter

Mohammed Dilawar has tips to bring them home to roost.
Good glut: Fruit pieces from your table, grains like bajra, wheat, sunflower seeds and rice can draw a variety of feathers. Go organic, if you can, to spare the tiny bird killer pesticides in its diet. Commit yourself to a long-term association as the birds will grow to depend on the food and water you leave for them.

Cool drink: Clean water, topped up as the level goes down and changed every day for hygiene. Both food and water need to be set out in a quiet, safe corner, away from children and pets that can startle or harm the birds.

Regular hours: Birds can be creatures of habit. Once they know they can depend on you for an early breakfast, they’ll even remind you with raucous caws, chips and tweets that it’s feeding time at the kennel.

Great splash: Want to enjoy more birds around your home? Set out larger bird baths. Birds like sparrows love a dust bath. Set out a bowl of loose dust. Be sure to secure all receptacles so that they don’t topple over and injure anyone. Wash bowls out at least once a week but make sure no soap or detergent is left behind as it can be lethal for birds.

Plants: Birds love flowering plants, hedges, plants that have edible berries. Ask your local nursery to help you choose  

Momma mia: Nest boxes/handis put up at a safe height. As a beginning, Nature Forever Society provides scientifically designed sparrow nest boxes made of recycled wood, and special sparrow feeders on a no-profit-no-loss basis. Check out www.naturforever.org. There are D-I-Y sites if you want to make a sparrow nesting box. Check http://www.beautifulbritain.co.uk/htm/wildlife_gardening/sparrow_terrace.htm and http://www.birdhouses101.com/House-Sparrow.asp

Catapult to oblivion: Say no to a catapult. This seemingly innocuous weapon is deadly for birds and small animals.

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