Where have sparrows gone? Time Hero to find out

Sparrows

Nearly a year after Nashik naturalist Dilawar became a Time magazine Hero for saving the common house sparrow, India's ministry of environment and forests has woken up to the need for conserving the bird.

"The centre has recently sanctioned a three-year project to investigate the causes leading to the decline of the house sparrow (Passer Domesticus) in urban areas of India," an excited Dilawar, 29, told IANS here.

To be headed by him, the project was awarded to the Bombay Natural History Society and will be the first ever study dedicated to monitoring the house sparrow population in India which has been steadily declining in cities over the past few years.
He said in India there is complete lack of basic information on the urban house sparrow population like on its habitat, factors affecting its breeding and survival, and social impact of urbanisation leading to their decline.
Dilawar plans to tackle these objectives scientifically and submit recommendations to the centre.

He said the decline in the house sparrow population in Britain and Western Europe has been widely recognised and taken very seriously. The humble house sparrows are nature's bio-indicators and enjoy a historical relationship with humans for thousands of years.

In the past five years, Dilawar has almost single-handedly struggled to create awareness about conserving the common sparrow, now facing a severe threat from humans.
Based in the heart of India's wine country, Nashik in northwest Maharashtra, Dilawar leads by example - he tends to over 150 sparrows daily, giving them food and water, as the bird's natural food resources are being eaten away by massive urbanisation.
"The common sparrow is under attack from many quarters. Hundreds of trees and bushes are being cleared for big buildings, open spaces are being concretised and thousands of mobile phone communication towers are being erected in cities, towns and villages. All this has hugely affected the tiny sparrow," he explained.

According to Dilawar, mobile phone towers pose one of the biggest threats to sparrows, and other birds like the tailorbird, mynah, sunbird, and even squirrels and human beings. He quoted a recent survey by a New Delhi-based organisation that found electromagnetic radiation pollution in Mumbai due to mobile phone towers is 200 percent higher than the permissible limits.

"This means we are sitting in an X-ray environment all the time. For the common sparrow, it causes irritation, it reduces their reproductive capacity. Even if it lays eggs, the hatchlings are either destroyed or born with serious deformities," he explained.
Though the species is sturdy, sparrow chicks have a high - up to 50 percent - mortality rate that affects the bird's overall population, according to Dilawar, who has a masters in ecology and environmental studies, specializing in zoology from Manipal University.
Dilawar compares the fate of common sparrows in the environment to that of the "common man in a democracy - nobody bothers about him".
He pointed to the menace of corporates, housing complexes and even public authorities obsessed with artificial landscaping using exotic and imported plants, which will ultimately prove to be green deserts.

Sparrows, according to Dilawar, are nature's barometer. "If there is a significant shift in their numbers around us, it's a warning signal for humans," Dilawar asserted.
House sparrows are hardy creatures with a life span of three to 13 years, able to survive in all temperatures and up to 15,000 feet above sea level.
One of the reasons for the decline of sparrows is the sale of thousands of catapults used to target birds. "It's a lethal weapon, shooting at a speed of 40 feet per second and must be banned," he urged.

Field surveys for the sparrow study will begin in Nashik in October and go on for three years following which the project will be replicated all over the country.

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