Where have all the sparrows gone?

Conservation

Where have all the sparrows gone?

“Where have all the sparrows gone?” is the most frequently heard question about the sparrow today. Go to the Bangalore International Airport for example. You can see sparrows galore, and often in comic action. Sparrows landing on the smooth floor, slipping and ‘skating’, one leg going one way and the other going another. Well, you might even get addicted to watching them while you wait for your flight! |

But to think of it, where have the sparrows come from at all? Our common ubiquitous House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is part of a forty-member family, distributed almost worldwide and closely related to the 140-member Munia family. They are essentially birds of the open country, like savannas and grasslands, and now crop fields.

Our association with the House Sparrow is itself thought to go back to the times when humans started cultivation or agriculture, when we got them closer to us. The association then evolved, and we now have them in our homes making themselves warm and cosy! Fossils of early sparrows (Passer predomesticus) found in a then much wetter Palestine show that our contemporary House Sparrows have evolved a thinner and longer beak. Maybe an adaptation to slightly different conditions with more insects.

Today our House Sparrows continue to be essentially grain eaters, feeding freely on insects, but also adapting to products of our civilisation. In fact, I know of a particular household in Bangalore where the sparrows around developed a taste for Mysore-pak and kesari-bhath for generations (theirs! not ours), almost following the lady of the house and begging for morsels every evening along with much longer addicted generations of Ashy Wren-Warblers (Prinia socialis). This ability to adapt to and make the most of our proximity and resources has perhaps been their strength, and today, the House Sparrow’s failing.  

On the drop in sparrow numbers

There have been many theories put forward for the almost worldwide decline of the House Sparrow. The most plausible one says that sparrow chicks, especially for the first few days after hatching, require insect food for their survival. When their parents are not able to find these insects to catch and bring back, disaster ensues. This results in an overall sparrow decline since there would not be any new recruits into the population.

If we look at our own cities where we see this dramatic decline in sparrow populations, it is not too difficult to hypothesise where all the problems could have occurred.

Compared to the times when our parents saw sparrows in abundance, we have altered the cityscape dramatically. Gone are the old houses with courtyards in front and backyards, yes, those quaint backyards, where broken rice would be separated from full rice, and peas would be separated from their pods. These activities gave sparrows an opportunity to pick the fallen bits and morsels. Then again, the architecture itself has changed.

No longer are sparrows able to find the tiny little nooks, crannies and holes where they used to build their nests. And for most hole nesting birds, finding a suitable hole to build a nest in is a major housing nightmare! It is a logical extension of thought to see why insects too are not able to find a home in our cities of today. There is just no greenery they can live on. And even if there are plants around, they are so heavily sprayed or coated by the chemicals we dump into the environment, or the pollution that we cause. And it is no wonder that sparrow parents cannot find insects for their chicks.

Blame it on our urban spaces

Our cities are also becoming increasingly noisy. Scientists and birdwatchers are now reporting that some diurnal birds are even shifting their singing sessions to the night. All to be heard! So if you ever hear your neighbourhood birds shifting their singing to the night, please remember, your noisy neighbourhood and the lights burning in the night have to do with it!

I’ve not heard reports of sparrows chirping in the night, but be warned, if you ever manage to retain the sparrows in your neighbourhood, and they start chirping in the lighted up night, its your kin which is forcing them to do night shift!

Sparrows are known to be quite parochial, often spending all their lifetimes in a local neighbourhood. They are perhaps loath to move and unlike the ever increasing Blue Rock Pigeons (Columba livia), do not move out much to feed either. Pigeons are much larger and fly out great distances to feed, and are not affected by the kind of insect food problems that sparrows face.

They produce a pre-digested slurry called pigeon-milk which they regurgitate for their chicks. Sparrows have not evolved this. If we take the dramatic decline that sparrows show in Bangalore, they are not alone. Many more species have shown dramatic declines in their numbers. Habitat degradation and loss have taken their toll in not only on populations but in the variety of species as well.

Had common-sense prevailed, rather than development based on cash flows into the parallel economy, we would have retained much more greenery and bird-life in Bangalore!

(The writer is an ornithologist.)

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