Rashmi Baruah

One always feels an excitement at the chirping of the humble house sparrow. The gradual decline, worldwide, of this ubiquitous bird is alarming. One of the most commonly found birds in both urban and rural settings, the sparrow mostly stays near human settlements. Unlike other birds, they are not found in forests or deserts, but make their homes in the awnings of tin or thatched roofs in rural areas, and now even in high rise buildings in urban areas. Over the years though, their population has reduced to an alarming degree. Where once we used to see 40-50 of them together at a go, nowadays such a huge group is a rarity.

In Japan, sparrows are taken to be a symbol of loyalty. This is probably due to their friendly nature, coming close to even eating out of the hands of humans they feel comfortable with, and the ability to live in big groups. They are found to be more social in their behaviour than other birds who live in bigger groups. Sparrows usually mate for life (though a lost mate would be quickly replaced) and they sometimes even reuse their previous nest! The male too takes its turn in helping incubate the eggs. The incubation period is between 12-15 days, with the young fledglings taking flight in around 15 days. Surprisingly, males and females take turns in being dominant, with females showing their domination in summer and spring, while the males get their turn in autumn and winter.

Though slow, the disappearance of a large number of sparrows has been labelled as one of the biggest mysteries of recent times. The UK has witnessed such a major decline in the population of house sparrows, that a leading newspaper has even declared a cash prize to anyone who could solve the mystery. Needless to add, the reward lies unclaimed. My aita used to say, the disappearance of sparrows would indicate the end of the world! And we would laugh, for such an occurrence seemed impossible to our young minds, such was the abundance of sparrows everywhere, and in particular in our village. Now that one thinks back on her words, one realizes that she meant that sparrows used to feed on the insects in the fields and grains of paddy in the fields or near about the bhorals or barns, but with decreasing agricultural activities, birds too are finding it difficult to procure food.

Sparrows have managed to adapt themselves to urban environments too, making their homes as they always do near human habitation. But changing food habits is probably one of the reasons why their numbers are shrinking. Some scientists and ornithologists are of the opinion that radiation from mobile towers are thought to be the major culprit for the disappearance of sparrows. Birds apparently navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic fields, but mobile radiations interfere with the bird’s ability to move around.

World Sparrow Day is celebrated on March 20 every year to raise awareness about sparrows and other common birds affected by the environment, and which are on the verge of extinction. The idea was to earmark a day for the house sparrow, to convey the message of conservation, not only of the house sparrow and other common birds, but also to mark a day of celebration to appreciate the beauty of the common biodiversity which we take so much for granted. After all, we must realize that nature does not come with a guarantee for a lifetime. This day is an international initiative by the Nature Forever Society of India, in collaboration with the Eco-Sys Action Foundation of France and numerous other national and international organizations across the world. The Nature Forever Society was started by Mohammed Dilawar, an Indian conservationist who started his work from Nashik. World Sparrow Day also has a broader vision to provide a platform where people who are working on the conservation of the house sparrow and other common birds can network, collaborate and exchange conservation ideas which will lead to better science and improved results. Md. Dilawar was named one of the ‘Heroes of the Environment’ for 2008 by the Time magazine for his efforts to conserve our environment. The first World Sparrow Day was celebrated in 2010 in different parts of the world, by carrying out various different kinds of activities and events like art competitions, awareness campaigns, and sparrow processions as well as interactions with the media to raise awareness.

I have a particular affinity with the common house sparrow, as seeing them around probably reassures me that all is well in the world, for my aita’s words keep resonating at the back of my mind. From the sparrows in the fields and at home in  aita’s village, to my dad giving titbits to them early morning, to a bunch in my marital home, I manage to find solace in the company of sparrows everywhere. But the best feeling was during my stay in an apartment complex in Delhi. My morning routine would involve reading a couple of newspapers along with a cup of coffee, sitting on the floor with the door to the balcony open. A couple of sparrows… obviously a male and a female, for one had red and black markings, while the other was mostly brown and white, would fly or hop in and explore my living space. Initially I would sit absolutely still after putting the fan off, for fear of harming them. But gradually, seeing them so much at ease, I would continue doing my work, while they enjoyed the saucer of broken biscuits or bread pieces that I had put out for them. And a couple of times, when I sang Dr Birendranath Dutta’s song, ‘Mukhot dudal duboribon, dudal khorika, mur sutalot umolohi, o’ ghonsirika…’, I got the feeling that they too joined in with their chirping!