Another World Sparrow Day will have passed us by on March 20. Ever since it was declared the state bird in 2012, nothing has been done to bolster the depleting sparrow population in Delhi. Not even a study to tell us where and how their habitats are disappearing.
Sparrows get many of us nostalgic. When we watched Ek Chidiya Anek Chidiya — a popular animation film that told the metaphorical story of how a united flock escaped a birdcatcher — on Doordarshan in the 1980s, we loved to relate to those birds as sparrows. So common and so sociable, the chirpy ones were part of our childhood in Delhi.
Today, we find rock pigeons everywhere but the once-abundant house sparrow is hard to spot in the city. Our modern urban living spared no space for the bird that has always been part of our household.
Most homes now have glass panels for windows but no ventilators where the sparrows once nested. Trees and hedges in our yards have been axed and green swathes have been paved for parking cars. There are potted plants in balconies but the loss of manure patches has deprived the birds of worms so vital for feeding their young ones.
It is worse in the suburbs where huge gated communities have come up on flattened brown fields. Many have grown manicured lawns, trimmed shrubs and creepers but hardly any trees. For the majority of children here, a sparrow is only a pretty picture in their bird book.
Our over-lit cityscape and electro-magnetic radiation from mobile towers are also hostile to birds. Delhi’s MLAs and councillors spend huge amounts of public money on installing extra bright high-mast lights in public parks and gardens. If you live near one, you would have heard sleepless birds chirping in the middle of the night.
Delhi’s ambition for vertical growth could be further disastrous for the birds as New York and Toronto have already found out. According to Fatal Light Awareness Program, millions of birds die each year in North American cities from hitting skyscrapers, mistaking their reflective windows for open sky. Since they can’t pull down skyscrapers, these cities are enforcing laws to make them bird-friendly by installing special window films, decals, external shutters, etc.
Noise is another killer. A study by University of Sheffield, UK, found that the noise could stop adult birds hearing the hunger calls from their dependent offspring. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, bats avoid hunting in areas with road noise; female frogs cannot hear male frogs’ signals in such areas; and urban noise can interfere with the songs birds use to repel intruders. It is not just sparrows. As kids, we saw frogs jump out from under the bushes in our gardens and parks whenever it rained well. Now, landscaped gardens have killed the undergrowth that was the habitat for insects, frogs and other such species.
Frogs have anyway become scarce because city’s lakes, ponds and water bodies are gone and the polluted Yamuna wetlands are in no position to support any life form. In a bid to conserve the amphibians, the University Grants Commission in 2011 told universities and colleges to stop dissection of frog in science labs.
Delhi’s mosquito explosion and frequent outbreaks of dengue and malaria could be linked to a near total disappearance of frogs. Ask any old-timer, you’ll be told how mosquitoes never used to be a problem and people often slept outdoors. In fact, it was one small mercy in the pre-privatised days of DESU when overnight power outages were common during the summer.
Be it in pest control, seed dispersal, scavenging or keeping the food chain intact, the so-called lesser life forms play a key role even in the most chaotic urban eco-systems. Our indifference to vanishing birds, insects or frogs is more than an aesthetic or cultural lapse that makes our cities increasingly unliveable. Whatever is killing them now may well get us tomorrow.
An earlier version of this article was published in March, 2015