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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


  1. As always an engaging writeup. All said, my casual observations in my neigborhood seem to indicate House Sparrows are doing ok... not declining as much as those who keep flower posts in their apartment balconies would wish.

    On the contrary, in Jaipur... there seems to be a decline.... again 'seems' is opertatve.


  2. Thanks you very much, an excellent reading this was, very engaging though quite insightful.
    Based on the 'crudest' manner of observation, I may say that in my area of the city (Northern Kolkata), the Sparrows are doing fine. There are plenty of them on the small Neem tree in front of my house and I must mention that there is a Mobile Tower in vicinity.
    I completely agree with you that scientific study must be supported by hard scientific data, and let the initiative of the World Sparrow Day guide the future works in that direction rather than speculation.

    Thanks again...

  3. It's rather interesting to observe huge flocks of House Sparrows around Haryana villages. May be they are thriving in villages, gradually shifting from urban landscape of high rises with neat and clean tiled houses. I believe sparrows are real survivors. I see them nesting under air conditioners, in a little Pomegranate tree or a ficus tree in open areas of my colony.
    One interesting place I saw thousands of them was at Country Inn in Bhimtal this year. They have labelled a particular Ficus tree as sparrow tree specially due to the alarming number of sparrows it attracts each evening.
    On the other hand, there's an open park in Gurgaon called Leisure Valley where untill 2005, I used to see sparrows roosting in thousands on Ficus lining the pathways. However, this year there are thousands of Mynas and very few flocks of sparrows left. May be Mynas colonising Sparrow habitats is another reason for their ousting.
    In any case, it definitely merits more than these casual observations. Thanks for the article which set many a mind thinking.

  4. This is really a wonderful narrative. I agree with authors observations. There is need of long term monitoring of the sparrow population to conclude on decline or increase in the population.

  5. Nice write up and thankyou for posting the link on delhibird.

    House sparrows are no longer seen in and around houses with man. Though I would like to share a couple of personal records of sighting large flocks of this declining species. I regularly visit a graveyard near the Fort area of the Aligarh Muslim University where a small tea shop has been set up by the roadside. Some khejri (Acacia leucophloea) trees stand between the graveyard and the tea shop and a flock of atleast 200 house sparrows whirr around sometimes perching on the canopy of the trees and landing on the littered ground on others. Similar behaviour was observed once on my way back from the Gurusikaran Forest on the outskirts of Aligarh Distt. This time it was the bushes by a paddy field on a kucha road in the winters.

    Lets us hope deliberations like these from Gopi Sundar and Sumit Sen take us ahead in chalking out a conservation strategy for the poor souls in the sparrows whose numbers have plummetted to our shock and chagrin.

  6. lack of worm/insect is not the major cause as I found them to enter in my home and eat the remainings of our food from dinning table and kitchen . They even eat fruits like bananna and guava. They can eat seeds also.In some places they are plenty, but they needs undisturbed groves to live.

  7. Kolkata and Mumbai has indeed many sparrows and that simply don't reflect the numbers else where.I have seen them in CST station and on the roads of Kolkata...What about other places.In my place Bhubaneswar out of 40 questioned surveys yield that only two places have sparrows in contrary to the earlier days abundance.Near by radius of 30 kms village area people agreed that there is very less numbers or even no sparrows at all.

  8. Dear Sumit,

    I read your well-researched and thought provoking article with a great deal of interest. I can only speak from my personal observation (or lack of it), and say that during the last 5 years I have lived in Chandigarh, Gurgaon, Coorg, and Munnar; and I have not seen a single sparrow in any of these places. I will admit that I have not actively sought them out, and they no doubt exist somewhere in the neighbourhood. If pesticides, and radiation from mobile towers, etc., have taken their toll - then why only on the hapless sparrows? Are sparrows particularly prone? There is seemingly no dearth of other species of birds to be seen in urban areas, even exotic ones sometimes. Sparrows, Crows, and Pigeons were the birds that were most commonly seen all over India, in my childhood.

    Warm regards,

    Jasbir S. Randhawa

  9. I agree. I have seen sparrows in my travels, notably around Agra's monuments, perhaps because of the vast gardens around each. Here - on the edge of Bangalore - there's such a varied bird life that sparrows are perhaps in a minority, but even here they perch on - guess what - mobile towers! So I'm not so sure of the much touted reason for their decline, though with reducing habitat, I guess all bird life may be in downspin.