The legendary city-based ornithologist Salim Ali might have foreseen the House Sparrow’s bleak future when he chose Fall of the Sparrow as the title for his autobiography in the late 1980s.
And experts say his fears from then are reflected in the ignorance today about the small common bird among the city’s children. The chirpy sparrow is fast disappearing from big metros like Mumbai. “I had to Google the bird to show my six-year-old nephew,” said bird lover Nishikant Pednekar, adding: “The species is fast dwindling because tall residential towers have eaten into their habitat.”
Acknowledging the gravity of the situation, India will observe its first World House Sparrow Day on March 20. The Ministry of Environment and Forest recently sanctioned its first study to determine the number of House Sparrows and the reasons for their depletion.
“The study will explore suitable habitats for the sparrow,” said Mohammed Dilawar, a Bombay Natural History Society (BHNS) volunteer, who is heading the study. Over the next three years, researchers will monitor the sparrow population across different habitats including single-storey colonies, residential tower clusters, and slums.
Conservationists say the dwindling number of sparrows is a sign of degrading urban life. “It reflects a decline in Mumbai’s nature index,” said naturalist-photographer Sunjoy Monga, adding that the number of crows and pigeons is growing because of the city’s garbage-generating consume-and-dispose lifestyle, and acute lack of civic sense.
“The city’s rising crow population is taking its toll on the overall quality of urban avifauna.”
Experts also blame parents for failing to make this generation sensitive to nature. “I grew up hearing lyrical stories on birds in Marathi — that happened because our parents took us to gardens, zoos etc,” says Rishikesh Chavan, conservation officer, BNHS.
“We only take our children to malls and gaming parlours,” he points out, explaining that the city’s unrestricted construction boom, and its fast multiplying cellphone usage are the primary factors driving sparrows outside the city.
A legacy’s keeper
Young conservationist Mohammed Dilawar picked up from where his late mentor Salim Ali — fondly called Birdman of India — left off.
The 29-year-old professor of environmental studies decided to dedicate his life to saving sparrows even as most of his colleagues are on the ‘Save the Tiger’ bandwagon.
Dilawar’s untiring efforts in the last six years to create awareness about the dwindling sparrow population has forced the government to sanction a first-of-its-kind study — budgeted at Rs 15 lakh. In three years, he will advise the state on the most suitable habitats for the bird.
On the sidelines of the study, he also makes wooden nests, using his own money, for the small bird, which he says is struggling to adapt to its swiftly changing urban habitat.
“If you cannot save a sparrow, how can you save the tiger? If saving the tiger will save the forest, you need to save the sparrows to save your cities,” he says.
Hundreds of house sparrows
The chirping of birds can overpower the constant bustle of vehicles zipping past this leafy lane off Marine Drive. Because of the efforts of the residents of ‘D’ Road, this lane is home to hundreds of House Sparrows.
In the rest of the city, their population has fast been dwindling, but here, they thrive, because of a simple effort to shelter them — the residents built a six-foot-long wire mesh and grew creepers on it.
It wasn’t long before hundreds of sparrows flocked to the area. “The idea was to save them from the crows,” says Anil Bhatia of the Marine Drive Residents Association.
Still, it’s not paradise found, yet. Squirrels in the vicinity are emerging as a threat — often, they occupy the sparrows’ nests when the birds are away and destroy their eggs.