Having lived close to Delhi's Central Ridge most of my growing years, I took the birds for granted. Some nested in the guava and pomegranate trees in our neighbour's yard. Some found their way into our home, building nests on ledges, in ventilators and open shelves. In fact, there were so many of them that bird-proofing the house was a big seasonal task for my mother. But now, she often complains about not getting enough birds.
While there are rock pigeons everywhere, the once-abundant house sparrow has become hard to spot. The two-storey houses in the neighbourhood have been converted into multi-storey apartments that have fancy glass panels but no ventilators. Most trees have been axed and green swathes paved for parking cars or building extra rooms. 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 that have come up on flattened brown fields now have manicured lawns, immaculately-trimmed shrubs and creepers but hardly any trees. For the majority of children here, a sparrow is now 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 parks and gardens. If you live near a park with high-mast lights, you would have heard birds chirping in the middle of the night, something you earlier heard only during the dawn.
Once the most widely distributed species of the world and one of the few that actually thrives in close proximity to people, house sparrows are fast disappearing from the urban environment. According to Britain's Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), the UK lost around 60% of house sparrows since the mid-1970s due to loss of food and nesting sites. The decline has been particularly acute in big cities such as London, Bristol, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Home to 450 bird species, Delhi boasts of the highest avian diversity in any capital city after Nairobi. But the case of the missing sparrows didn't get our attention until two years ago when the first World Sparrow Day was celebrated. This week CM Sheila Dikshit declared the sparrow as the state bird and launched the "Rise for the Sparrows" campaign.
The UK launched a similar drive in the mid-2000s but getting the birds back has been quite a task. As RSPB experts pointed out, house sparrows are sedentary and rarely move far from their birthplace. It takes a long time for them to return to areas areas from they have disappeared.
During my four years in south Delhi's Chittaranjan Park, I was greeted by a cheerful band of birds on my balcony and terrace every time I woke up early. There were parrots, bulbuls, tailorbirds, mynahs and sparrows. Having a few non-manicured municipal parks maintained with support from resident associations, a few trees lining the colony roads and a little green yard in many houses did the trick.
Most apartment residents may not have such options. But they can easily set up birdhouses and small water troughs with a sprinkling of grain seeds in their balconies. It may be a while before the birds turn up. But when they do, they will bring a lot of joy that Delhi residents owe to their children.