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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Accessorize For Birding with Less Than Rs. 10,000/-

Birdwatching is an adventure and takes us to little known places where weather and infrastructure can be a challenge. Moving around with the right accessories can make the difference between struggling with the conditions and enjoying a peek at a rarity. With winter fast approaching, this is the right time to start tooling up. And with online stores like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Jabong etc. offering a staggering choice, you can do all the shopping right from your mobile.
The list below contains products that I have personally used and am satisfied with. There are better and cheaper alternatives around, but these are the one's that met my need on a budget. I have, of course, no connection with the manufacturers or sellers. I wish I had – maybe that would have led to a substantial discount. But somehow I doubt it :). All prices are approximate and were those that I paid when I bought them. There is a disclaimer at the end of this article. Please do read it before buying anything listed here.

An adventure seeking birdwatcher needs more than just a showy wristwatch. This one does most things that you may want a wristwatch to do, and more. The great thing about it is that the barometer gives you some time to seek cover in threatening weather.

Casio Men''s SGW400H-1B Sport Multi-Function black Dial Watch
From Grabmore and Shopclues Rs. 4,200/-

Head Lamp
An indispensable tool to find your way to the lightless toilet or that rocky climb after dark. Everyone should have one, especially in India.

Energizer LED Headlight HDL33A1 Torch
From Snapdeal Rs. 600/-

Outdoor Shoes
Those who hit hard rocks with their toe nail would know the difference between walking shoes and shoes made by people who know how to make them. This one is the cheapest of the line but good enough for most birders.

Merrell Phoenix Ventilator Brown Outdoor Shoes
From Jabong and Myntra Rs. 3,200/- (after discounts)

Rain Cover
Rain or drizzle is just around the corner in some seasons in most parts of India. A rain jacket that keeps water away and can be tucked into your camera bag is a no-brainer. A must have, especially if it looks smart.

Quechua Raincut Hiking Jacket 8207362
From: Snapdeal and others Rs. 500/-

Bucket Cap
Long lens photographers will love this one. Baseball hats are an obstacle to photography – this one does the job in style with mesh-openings allowing flow of air.

Wildcraft Unisex Khaki Bucket Cap
From Myntra and Infibeam Rs.600/-

Solar Light
An easy to carry and water-resistant solar light is godsend when you are under a tent or having dinner under a flickering candle. This durable piece is inexpensive and easy to carry.

D.Light S2 Solar Lights
From Flipkart Rs 450/-

Portable Mobile Charger
Don't leave home without one. I got mine as a bundle with a car charger that I needed. But I like the product and its size. Choices here are by the gallons, choose what you like. The tip is to buy one with mAh higher than the rating of your mobile battery.

Callmate PB2600SL-MI 2600 mAh Portable Battery
From Flipkart Rs. 550/-

Mobile Rain Cover
Indispensable when birding out in inclement weather. You can even strap this to your arm.

WP-320 Universal Waterproof Bag
From Rediff Rs 300/-

DSLR Camera Rain Cover
Make one yourself, or better still buy an inexpensive pair and keep one handy in your camera bag. Nothing like shooting out in the open and in the rain to attract envy :)

DSLR Rain Sleeve
From Photo Vatika Rs 300/- for a pair.

Portable Stool
An asset for tired legs, especially old ones! Plus a great way to sit motionless to observe and photograph shy wildlife. This one is easy to carry too! One caveat – not for those who weigh more than 100 kilos!

Quechua Tripod Stool
From Snapdeal and Decathlon Rs 500/-

Free Android Apps (All available at the Play Store)
1. Bird Checklist India by Eric Fransson : Easy to use and fairly good. Works offline.
2. GPS Status & Toolbox by MobiWIA – EclipSim : Great for Lat/Lon info. Includes altimeter and compass
3. Hi-Q MP3 Voice Recorder by Yuku : Has gain control, and allows you to record bird calls for identification. Mobiles are not great for recording bird calls, but this app is impressive.
4. Droidlight LED Flashlight by Motorola Mobility LLC. : Most free flashlights need needless permissions. This one is very clean.

I hope you enjoyed the write-up and found something that will interest you. Almost all the items can be found by Googling the full name description. This whole lot cost me about Rs11,000/-
Disclaimer: I am sorry that I will not be able to give any additional information and am certainly not responsible for any item that you purchase based on these tips. The tips are offered by an amateur user based on his experience – your mileage may vary.

Happy Shopping!

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Praise of Crows

Note: This is not a researched scholarly article based on accepted statistical measurement or scientific data. It examines possibilities and presents unverified outcomes based on my personal interpretation of available data. The purpose is to encourage thinking and raise questions, and to look at the potential contribution made by Corvus splendens or the House Crow to urban India.

It is an understatement to say that they are not much loved. The House Crow, or Corvus splendens is a bird almost everyone loves to hate. 'Splendens' in Latin translates to brilliant - a difficult adjective to use when talking about crows. That it is dark, big, and black is not enough – it is singularly noisy and also a source of urban defilement. It is, therefore, not a surprise that Corvus splendens is regarded as a public nuisance in many countries!

The crow is regarded as a nuisance for a reason. It actually causes much visible damage. The list of its crimes are long, and reads like a charge-sheet. The house crow inflicts economic and ecological damage by predating chicks and eggs, destroying crops, causing severe damage to fruit in orchards, and presents a threat to tourist amenities and industry in some places. It is also an intestinal carrier of at least eight human enteric diseases. 
The charges against it are especially vitriolic in the many countries where this intelligent and resourceful bird has established itself as an unwanted alien.

But we, in India, are not dealing with an intruding pest. This is very much an Indian (or subcontinental) bird, and we have all walked the path together for ages. Almost everyone in India is familiar with the House Crow. No city dawn breaks without its raucous call preparing the citizens for another day of its shenanigans. It defiles, its robs, it attacks – we know that, and have learned to live with it. For what? Is there any service that this bird provides that diminishes or balances the misdeeds? Indeed there is, and it is a multi-crore contribution, one potentially big enough to invite researchers to look deeper into the subject and perhaps help restore dignity to this much-maligned commensal of man. 

The role of the crow
House Crows are known to be useful in removing pests. They were, in fact, introduced to Malaysia and Oman to control caterpillars and livestock ticks. But, perhaps, the reason they were introduced in the island of Zanzibar holds the real key to this discussion – the birds were introduced to clean up refuse or garbage!

Having raised the issue of garbage and crows, let us plunge ahead to the heart of this discussion which is not about 'crows are garbage', but how crows contribute to the management of garbage. House Crows are omnivorous scavengers with a wide-ranging and opportunistic diet. They eat absolutely everything that is edible, and some that may not even be so. The crow feeds largely on refuse around human habitations, carrion, small reptiles, insects, small invertebrates, eggs, nestlings, plants, grain and fruits etc.. Being closely associated with people (no populations are known to live independently of man), the crow takes advantage of scavenging opportunities provided by discarded food items and refuse dumps. This is particularly true in urban environments where other food sources like fruits, grain, insects, eggs etc. are limited.

Garbage or refuse is waste matter, something that is unwanted or useless. In urban areas, garbage is mostly due to poor decisions and is a by-product of our activities. Although one man's trash can be another man's treasure (particularly so in India) much of this waste is household waste which goes under the name of 'Municipal Waste'. Studies indicate that Indians are not as wasteful as people in more developed countries, but even then an average Indian generates between 200 - 600 grams (g) of waste a day. Given our population, that is a significant amount that we don't want, and unless we dispose or reuse it efficiently we may get drowned in waste in a very short time because accumulated waste leads to degradation of urban environment, stresses natural resources and leads to health problems. According to published reports, Mumbai city generated 6256 tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) per day in 2001. Kolkata city was not far behind with 4,000 tons generated a day. A large part (30-55%) of the MSW is non-recyclable organic waste, stuff that crows eat. Huge amounts of money are spent by civic bodies to dispose of waste. In 2001, the Municipal Council of Greater Mumbai spent Rs. 61,435 million towards MSW management. The cost for the country as a whole must be staggering considering that we generated 42 million tons of MSW in 2004 -2005.

But our story is that we actually generated more garbage. How much more and who disposed it? Of course the crows removed garbage before we collected it! Just how much is what we need to find out.

How much does a crow eat?
On then to crows and how much garbage they remove. The first thing to determine is just how much a crow eats. As with many subjects in India, there seems to be no data on this subject. There is considerable work on how much crows destroy, but no one thought it important to find out how much it actually consumes! The crow is a omnivore and its diet consists of food that has mixed calorific value. Studies indicate that a free ranging wild bird usually consumes one half its body weight every day as a rule of thumb. But this differs between bird types with hummingbirds consuming as much as twice their body weight each day, and raptors requiring a quarter of body weight. The House Crow belongs to the corvid family. Studies in the west with similar members of the corvid family suggest that a 'well-grown” American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) needed 600grams of food every day to maintain their body weight of around 600g (Forbush, 1907). Some other studies with Carrion Crows (Corvus corone) also suggest a daily food requirement close to the birds body weight. The House Crow weighs between 245 to 370 grams, or about 300g on average. If the studies on corvids are used as a guide, then the House Crow needs about 300g of food daily.
Much of what the average House Crow eats is garbage or human waste – but not all. Crows predate, consume insects, drink nectar, eat fruits, grain etc. and occasionally rob human food. Urban crows have less ability to obtain many of these goodies and are more reliant on our wasteful habits for survival. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that urban crows consume at least 225g of waste/day while their rural brethren consume, say, 50% or 110g of waste/day. 

Having determined an individual crows appetite for trash, we need to move on to figuring out how much food is consumed by all House Crows in India. Child's math now that we know how much one bird eats. All we need is the number of crows in India. Easy!

How many crows?
But this, as you probably guessed, is where we come across the biggest hurdle. There is no scientific study on the crow population in India. The best we have is a citizen science project by the members of birdsofbombay at Yahoo groups, who (led by Sunjoy Monga) estimated that there were roughly around 5,00,000 - 6,00,000 House Crows in the Mumbai city area in 2001, based primarily on sample nest counts. My presumption is there were more. House Crows have two distinct populations – one that is territorial and sedentary and another that disperses everyday to forage. The territorial lot is easy to count as they have nests within their area and do not stray far from home. A very large percentage of the crow population are non-nesters (juvenile, old?) and disperse widely only coming back to a fixed communal roost. Any nest count data will ignore these birds, and they can be half the actual population. [This behaviour difference makes even roost counts suspect as it ignores territorial birds]. To give you an idea, I counted crows flying in to a nearby roost every day for a period. My line of sight only covered 5-6 percent of the arrival path to the roosting area. My average daily count of non-territorial crows was c.2,000. If we extrapolate this number to cover all access points to the roost area, we would end up with about 60,000 crows by a simplistic calculation! - crows that roost in an area but forage elsewhere.

The birdsofbombay teams exercise is laudable as an excellent initiative and provides preliminary information on crow populations. There are more rigorous studies on House Crow populations – but they are in foreign countries. The island of Singapore counted crows in 2001 and found 133,000 of them. Tiny (35 Kharg Island in Iran woke up one day to the call of 5,500 House Crows. There have been other counts in Zanizibar and elsewhere, but mostly in alien areas by people who were preparing to cull or eradicate these birds. There is no real count of the species in the subcontinent, and none seem to be likely in the future. 

The hypothesis
What then is the way out? How does one even roughly estimate the crow population in India? One way is to go by figures of population density from areas where they have been scientifically counted. But that throws up greatly divergent figures and does not factor in habitat differences. For example, Singapore had a population density of 192 birds per sq. km in 2001 despite culling. Kharg Island had a density of 157 birds/sq. Km and Pemba Island in Zanzibar boasted of 122 crows in every sq. km. on average. Closer home, in the sparsely populated Uttara area of Dhaka, Bangladesh a study found 40 House Crows in every sq. km, and a study in the Delhi area in 2007 by Neeraj Khera and others found 40 crows in each hectare in urban areas. The area density indicator, therefore, is extremely variable and unsuitable for generalization. The alternative is to look for a different correlation which can give us a rough and ready estimate of the crow population. And here one characteristic of the House Crow stands out and makes it an exception from all other birds – Corvus splendens is a obligate associate of man. It only survives where humans are present and depends on them for survival. Is it possible, therefore, to draw a correlation between human population and House Crow numbers in the subcontinent where the birds are well-established natives, especially in urban areas where the bird almost entirely depends on human waste? I propose as much. It is a logical hypothesis which could be tested in the field. 

If we test this hypothesis with data from Singapore we arrive at a index of one House Crow for every 38 humans, and Singapore is known as one of the cleanest places in Asia. Data from Pemba Island suggests that at some time there was one crow to every 5 humans. Closer home, if we take Mumbai's crow estimate and compare it with Mumbai's population in 2001, we arrive at 16 humans/crows. My own observations based on the small study area around my locality offers a ratio of 11 humans/crows based on data collected over 3 years. These are numbers which are much closer to each other and may offer us a tool, at least in urban India. While actual data for more areas will take effort and time to generate, it seems plausible that there is 1 crow to every 10-15 human is city areas of India.

We need to pick a number here as a yardstick to move on with our exercise. I have chosen 15humans/crows as being the representative ratio for urban India, based largely on the results from the Mumbai exercise. At this stage there is no point in refining this number further as it is a very crude number and does not take into account variables like habitat, food habits and hygiene of citizens, efficiency of garbage handling, alternate food sources etc. etc. The idea here is to try and look at the big picture and get a sense of scale.

Population estimate
Now that we have a preliminary index, we can move forward to the next steps. The first of which is to determine the urban crow population in India. India's urban population is estimated at 287 million as at 2010. With one crow needing 15 humans to support it, the estimated crow population is then 1,91,00,000 or 19 million in urban areas. In rural areas, the population density of crows is lower and there is less crow-human dependency from waste creation. This is partly because organic solid waste is much less, and much of the stuff that we can't consume has other takers like farm animals. The Dhaka study suggests a large fall in density in semi-urban areas and the Delhi study found crow densities dropping to 1/4th urban densities in agricultural areas. Not the entire non-urban area is agricultural, and at the same time there are large tracts which do not have crow populations despite human presence. By factoring these differences in, we may assume that the crow to humans ratio in the rural and semi-urban areas of India is around 50humans : 1crow (around 1/3rd). Again this is a unverified assumption and is based largely on density differences observed in one study. India's rural population was 742 mn in 2010. Based on that number the rural crow population across the country should be in the region of 1,50,00,000 crows or 15 million rural crows, giving us a grand total of 34 million crows in the country.

Now that we have a derived estimate of the strength of the House Crow in India, the rest is easy. Let us first establish how much solid waste our crows consume on a daily basis. The calculations are different for rural and urban crows. The urban crows almost entirely live off refuse, the rural ones possibly have a much more variable diet.
Based on our earlier estimate of daily consumption, an adult crow will consume 300g daily. The calculations are as under:

So total garbage cleared by crows is:
Urban crows [1,91,00,000 x 165g] = 3,150 tons/day = 11,50,000tons/year
Rural crows  [1,50,00,000 x 110g] = 1,650 tons/day = 6,00,000tons/year

Here is where we drop the rural crows from our exercise. Much of rural India does not have Municipal services and there is no significant cost-saving due to the crow's presence. In fact it is very likely that the damage to agriculture and farming is as significant as any environmental costs the crow may save.

Contribution of urban crows
Urban solid waste management costs anywhere between Rs.3,000 – 4,000+ per ton on average across India. Applying a rate of Rs 3,000, the total amount of money that is saved by the House Crow annually in urban areas of India in Municipal Solid Waste management cost is estimated to be [11,50,000x3000] Rs 340,00,00,000 or Rs. 340 crores. Add environmental costs associated with garbage (Rs 790/ton in Mumbai in 2003 according to a study) and the final contribution by House Crows can easily cross Rs 400crores (about US$ 90mn) annually – and this is citizen tax savings!

As I said at the beginning, this is not a scholarly article based on accepted statistical measurement or scientific data. It examines possibilities and plausible estimates based on available data from some areas The purpose is to encourage thinking and raise questions, and to look at the House Crow with less than hate-filled eyes. After all, higher Municipal taxes are not exactly what you may want to trade off in exchange for a mischievous native garbage destroyer!

Acknowledgements and references

Many thanks to Arka Sarkar and K. S. Gopi Sundar for checking the draft for logical inaccuracies and suggesting changes. They are in no way responsible for the contents of this blog entry.

6. Behavioral Ecology - False feeding;... Daniela Canestrari et al (2009) 
7. Crows Eradication Programme - Department of Commercial Crops, Fruits and Forestry, Zanzibar, Tanzania (pdf)
12. Animal weights and their food and water requirements - Ministry of Environment British Coloumbia
14. Mortality rates and survival of birds - D B Botkin et. al. in The Ameriacn Naturlist (1974)

Sumit Sen
August, 2011

> Comment received by mail from Rose DeNeveI am a sincere believer in the philosophy that every species and all creatures have a role to play in the grand scheme of life. Thank you for such a clear and logical presentation in making a case for the humble house crow. There is much to be learned from and about this intelligent, if cantankerous, bird!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Fall of a (House) Sparrow - with apologies to Salim Ali

I am a birder, and many people I meet casually know about my passion for birds. Many of these people often want to make polite conversation. Gentle people generally talk about a subject that interests you when they want to be polite. There is little scope of discussing the 'Metals market' or the quaint tea-shop behind Piccadilly Circus with me. For one, I have not the foggiest chance of being in London, and the only markets that interest me these days are the illegal animal trading markets. Thus, a bird-oriented subject is invariably raised for discussion by these well-meaning folks - and the most popular one by far is the vexed subject of why sparrows are disappearing from around us. This question is even more likely if you are addressing a gathering of potential bird-lovers, as I do from time to time. There are always some in the audience who have to ask an intelligent question for various reasons. And the 1st question usually is 'why are sparrows disappearing?'. This is often followed by a more serious question, on the effects of proliferating mobile transmission towers on the sparrows around us.
Beyond the fact that these people read their newspapers, and are deeply interested in bad news, the lesson I draw from these questions is how the press can make a story that we finally all believe in, even if we do not know how to count.

House Sparrows are commensal of man and have been around for ages, though some believe that they came to Indian cities only in the last century. Everything had seemed hunky dory for our little fluffy urban neighbours till 'The Independent' newspaper in London decided to announce to the world in 2000 that House Sparrows in Britain had declined by 68% since 1977 – the decline being mainly an urban one, with London being the worst hit. The Independent went on to announce a £5,000 prize for the first properly accepted scientific answer for the sparrow's startling disappearance. The prize remains unclaimed to date, but the marketing strategy worked wonderfully, and any number of people the world over suddenly started to look over their shoulders to find that sparrows, a part and parcel of their lives, had disappeared forever from their surrounds.

The British are, perhaps, the world's most serious bird-watchers and when they say that House Sparrows started declining in Britain since the mid-80', they are certainly highlighting a real problem and backing it up with hard data. Sparrows have indeed declined in parts of Britain and the answer is a £5,000 question.

Cut back to India for a moment. And to the silver haired porcelain spinsters who worry about why they can't see sparrows like they used to in the past. The worried spinster, and her like, form the main core of the bandwagon that carries the fire of the sparrow crisis in our midst and fuels the success of 'World Sparrow Day', and various save the sparrow campaigns across India which are keenly supported by august institutions like BNHS.
Ask the old lady when was the last time she counted sparrows. The usual feedback you may receive goes something like, “I have never counted sparrows – but there used to be many around my Naktala house”. It has been many years since the old lady moved out of the old, single-storey, eaves-filled, Naktala bungalow with a small garden in front. Today, she stays in a posh apartment building with no crevices and holes – and that too on the 7th floor! It is a mystery to her that the friendly chirp is missing in her new environment! Why should sparrows be suddenly absent from her life merely because she shifted out of her old digs? It must be due to the damn mobile towers – they finished her sparrows!

But why blame the old lady? Even the people who are campaigning tirelessly to save the House Sparrow in India are as much in the dark about numbers as she is, or at least that is what I presume in the absence of published data. As Mr Prashant Mahajan, Assistant Director of the Important Birds Area division at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is quoted as saying “There is data from the UK, but the decline in India is evident only through observations.”
What, then you may ask, is the value and quality of this observation? Who observed? Certainly not scientists who have better things to do, and certainly not dedicated birders who are a hundred times more likely to want to observe the flamingos at Sewri Bay, or worry about last winter's non-arrival of the Eyebrowed Thrush in Kolkata. They never observed House Sparrows – but the kind lady and her kind did, and their observations fuel the 'sparrow crisis' in India.

All this is not to say that House Sparrows are not declining in urban India. Perhaps, they are and, perhaps, it is a serious matter. But a decline is defined as something being less or decreasing. Decreasing needs a start number to be measurable. The fact is, we do not simply have a start number. So how can we measure decline? We do it by counting sparrows. All the well-meaning folks should continue their well-meaning work and start the process by counting House Sparrows. If they do that they will find plenty near my home in southern Kolkata. The house cannot be missed by 'sparrow-doomsdayers'. It has a massive mobile tower next to it – the nemesis of sparrows based on research done by scientists from faraway Spain, Sweden and closer-to-home Kerala and Punjab! Why sparrows are multiplying in Singapore, Paris, Berlin etc. despite active cell-phone habits of their citizens is something that has not been well explained. 

Talking about sparrows near my house gives me an opportunity to dwell a little deeper into the habits and needs of the species. The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a 15cm brown bird which belongs to the family Passeridae. The species's habits are well-described by E.A. Zimmerman who lives in North America. The House Sparrow is not a native bird to that continent, and is an invasive alien. The first birds were released in USA in the 1850's and they have now grown to 150 million and have established themselves in all 48 states! It is such a nuisance in that country that it is called 'hoodlum' in certain parts. You can read about Zimmerman's “House Sparrow History” here:

Zimmerman describes the species as an extremely adaptable one, capable of territorial control and range expansion. They are prolific breeders. Living near humans, they prefer to nest in protected locations such as rafters, gutters, roofs, ledges, eaves, behind pipes and wall voids etc. They also build nests very quickly and reuse nests. House Sparrows rest in thickets or dense foliage. They are fairly hardy, and can consume 830 kinds of food from grain, seed, human food waste to insects etc.

My house has pipes protected from the elements. Behind these pipes live about 8 House Sparrows. It is always around four pairs + unfledged offspring because the pipes only allow four nests. They have been there since I started counting them 9 years ago. We have large green open spaces across our house which are untended. The sparrows find food in this area and are joined by another dozen or so birds from the neighbourhood. There used to be more 4 years ago - till an old building was pulled down and replaced by a modern multi-storied one. I never figured out where the colony that nested in the old building went!
Our neighbourhood sparrows get insects for their young from the greenery around us. They even find human food waste from a community of slum-dwellers across our house. The sparrows in my neighbourhood have it good despite the monster mobile tower and despite the legions of predatory House Crows. But should I decide to cover the pipes and prevent the sparrows from nesting in my house, my neighbourhood will promptly loose 8 sparrows – and that is the truth!

This decline of sparrows around urban areas is then a real thing – a ticking time-bomb, with unmeasured but perceived consequences. What then is the reason or reasons? Fact is, we do not know as yet. So my guess is as good as anyone else's at this stage. Perhaps, better than most because I have been counting one colony of House Sparrows for 9 years! With that sort of hard-to-match (in India) field-observation I can boldly share with you what I think, even though I am not an ornithologist or an expert. And I think that the reduction in cities may be primarily due to habitat-changes which encompasses effects of pollution, mobile radiation. etc., etc.

House Sparrows evolved to share our space and the way we lived till, say, 50 years ago. They can't seem to cope with the manicured 'insect-less' lawns and crevice-free houses found in most modern cities. Give them a few open drains through which our after meal leftovers flow down, and a few houses with eaves and rafters and pipes, all surrounded by unkempt greenery and you may see them spring back naturally. The other alternative is what some are trying – giving them nest-boxes instead of drainage pipes.

My own stand on this matter is to let nature take its course. There is a limit to which we can festoon our houses with nest boxes in various stages of disintegration, and there is no guarantee that next-boxes are a solution. If sparrows are found to be declining in cities (which a count over time can prove) – then perhaps they are multiplying in the suburbs and villages. A count there over the same time can test this hypothesis. And like the many surmisers who have observed the decline of the sparrow in cities – this surmise may be supported by observations till a count is made!

If sparrows are indeed multiplying, or doing well in non-urban areas, then it is not a loss but a realignment of distribution based on habitat preference. Which is not such a bad thing in India. For Britain it is another thing altogether – they don't have areas of uneven development and economic imbalances. There the £5000 prize holds the key and good luck to whoever gets it! But my belief is that it will all have to do with the habitat and the environment in the end, and how we are destroying some part of it that meets the need of this dependent companion of ours. 

References and further reading:
Addendum: Came across this very useful article today: 
Habitat-wise distribution of the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in Delhi, India (2009) by Neeraj Khera et. al . At least one sincere attempt to count sparrows - edited on 19/8/2011
1. The Independent 20th Nov 2008
2. House Sparrow History
3. Mobile towers threaten house sparrow: study - The Hindu June 19, 2009
4. World Sparrow Day celebrated - Times of India, March 21, 2010
5. World Sparrow Day website
6. World Sparrow Day on March 20 - The Hindu Online, March 18, 2011
7. March 20 to be celebrated as World House Sparrow Day - Asian Tribune, 18/3/2010
8. Radiation from mobile towers wipes out birds - Times of India 3/10/2008
9. Mystery of the vanishing sparrows still baffles scientists 10 years on - The Independent 19/8/2010
10. Vanishing Sparrows by M. Mohan Kumar
11. Vet. World. 2010; 3(2): 97-100. The case of the Disappearing House Sparrow (Passer domesticus indicus)
12. Bye bird, hello virus - The Telegraph, Kolkata 3/11/2008
13. Experts call for cultural change to save wildlife - Times of India