The chirp is back in the air—after two decades

The chirp is back in the air—after two decades

As a toddler, Lalit saw his mother feed fistfuls of grains to flocks of house sparrows as a daily ritual. That was in his village, Kabroi, in the Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh. Today, at about 20, the car-cleaner and his family live close to a residential complex on the UP-Delhi border. The three-storeyed structure, shared by 110 families, has scores of trees lining its boundary, besides countless shrubs and potted plants.

Lalit, who comes to the housing society early morning, has seen me struggle with the tiny avians who play hide-and-seek with my camera. The small sizes and mad hopping of sunbird, oriental white-eye and, the most charming of them all, tailor bird or Darzee of the Jungle Book fame, test one's luck and patience.

Just last spring, Lalit had told me wistfully that he had only a faint memory of what goraya, as the house sparrow is known in Hindi, looked like. Since shifting to the city, he had never seen it. This year, to his surprise--and mine--there are at least six pairs of house sparrows peeping out of the shafts of our housing complex, or nesting in the vines climbing the building walls.

Some families feed them daily, in the sheer joy of re-union with the most common bird from their childhood bird that now sits on the red list of the endangered species of The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But not everyone is fond of them, in fact, quite the opposite. They see it as an invasive pest, a "kind of brown-winged rat stealing our food". The human love-hate relationship with the bird, says biologist and author Rob Dunn, is typical of human beings.

"I can tell you that when sparrows are rare, we tend to like them, and when they are common, we tend to hate them. Our fondness is fickle and predictable and says far more about us than them. They are just sparrows, neither lovely nor terrible, but just birds searching for sustenance and finding it again and again where we live," Dunn wrote in an article in  Smithsonianmagazine.com.

Scientific studies have established that the house sparrows follow us everywhere and simply cannot live where we don't, provided we let them live. Why they disappeared is well chronicled, but how did a few of them make a sudden reappearance in my surroundings?

The removal of a mobile tower in a neighbouring building, most bird-lovers think, is the answer. But the foremost trigger must have been thought which, science says, sends out a vibration, both internally and externally. In the words of scientist-inventor Nikola Tesla, who was Thomas Edison's contemporary and designed the alternating current (AC) electrical system, "If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of frequency and vibration." 

As an avid bird-watcher since my childhood, I have known the strong and silent communication, a sort of current, that flows between us and other life forms. It is thanks to this current that during the last nine months of dedicated bird-watching, I got to photograph birds I never even expected to see in my setting. It is as though a new vibration was created in the air, pulling rare birds to it.

On the first day of last October, I was dumbstruck at the sight of the spectacular, migratory, paradise fly-catcher. A guest for two hours, it did not visit again. A fortnight ago, three green bee-eaters made a surprise and fleeting appearance, one even giving me a signature shot, a bee in its mouth. The same happened with a pair of coppersmith barbets last week, who posed generously for me.

There is a message in these priceless and thrilling sightings: If rare birds one does not even expect to see pop out of nowhere, how much more the possibility of seeing the house sparrow which so many people have been longing to see? The answer is, "very much more".

A year ago, I had to look high and low for a picture of the house sparrow while writing a piece in this very column on the World Sparrow Day today before managing it from an amateur nature photographer. When I circulated the piece among family and friends, many responded with their own sweet or sad story about it. All this collective mourning at their disappearance--and yearning--had to yield results.

This time, without stepping out of the housing society, I got scores of pictures. With nest boxes being fixed in some balconies, there will soon be many more house sparrows, spring and summer being their peak breeding time. In short, after a gap of almost two decades, Lalit and a whole lot of us can say with confidence that we willed the chirp back into our air.

Award-winning conservationist Mohammed Dilawar had told me last year that a people's movement was needed to bring the house sparrow back. Looking at the success of a mini-movement around me, I know exactly what he meant.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)

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