World Wildlife Week seems a good time to take a look at the sparrow. At one time these birds were a common sight. Today, if you are to spot one you would be lucky. What has caused these little birds to almost disappear?
Undoubtedly the cheeky chirping is back. Maybe not in operatic proportions but yes, they are back. Enough to make a pedestrian stop, stare and exclaim happily, “that's a house sparrow, nice to see them again”. House sparrows have lived with human beings for centuries, sharing their homes, building nests in old fashioned eaves and photo frames, electrical frames and jutting frames.
Drab they may look, and diminutive, but their chirping cannot be ignored. This is a twittering that brings a smile to your face. And it is a happy sight, when you spy them hopping around rather energetically as they forage for food in courtyards and around grocery shops that still have grain stored in gunny bags.
Male house sparrows have gray heads, white cheeks and a black bib, and rufous neck — although in cities you may see some that are dull and grubby. The female are a plain creamy-brown with gray-brown “underpants”. Their backs are noticeably striped with cream, black, and brown. They can be extremely noisy and have raucous fights in the nest.
People who have lived with house sparrows find their presence endearing. Rose, a 70-year-old resident in Chennai, says, “I keep the windows open in the evenings, till they come in to roost. I think this is the fourth generation. It worries me, when I don't see them coming in.” She smiles as she continues, “A couple of times a bird got caught in the blades of the fan and died. Since then I switch off the fans, when the sparrows come in.”
October 2 to 6 is annually celebrated as Wildlife Week and this year the theme is House Sparrow Special, following the concentrated effort of the Save the Sparrow campaign on World Sparrow Day. The aim of these celebrations is to concentrate on saving any species of wildlife — flora or fauna from extinction.
One of the main reasons for the decline in house sparrows is food, specially for the young. Excessive use of chemical fertilizer kills organic material, for example insects and worms that are the ideal food for sparrows are killed and it is indeed a pathetic sight to see them searching for food in garbage dumps. In the olden days homes had courtyards where the women of the house cleaned rice and lentils. What was scattered was a feast for the birds. But now supermarkets offer grains and lentils in neatly packed bags.
Urbanisation of the cities has changed the architecture of the homes leaving no space for the house sparrow.
Change in agricultural mechanisms, rapid urbanisation, deforestation and excessive use of chemical fertilizer has resulted in loss of habitat and food scarcity causing serious threat to these little birds.
A little forethought and a few simple steps can bring the sparrow back, to enrich our lives with their presence.
What you can do
Splash! A bird bath
How to make it:
Fill the lid with a layer of pebbles so that it's weighted down. Set the lid on top of a terracotta flowerpot. Fill the lid with water and make your own bird bath!
Home Sweet Home
Sparrow nest boxes should be fixed two to four metres up a tree, wall or the side of your house, or ideally, under the high eaves of a building. Face the box away from strong sunlight and winds. Make sure you also use a bird box with a hole no less than 32mm in diameter.
Plant a food bank
Grow a seed patch in old shoe boxes. This has proven valuable for sparrows and other birds, looking for insects to feed their young.
An intelligent bird, the house sparrow has proved to be adaptable to most situations like nest sites, food and shelter. It was the most abundant songbird in the world.
They are social birds and flock together through the year. When searching for food the flock may cover a range of 1.5 to 2 miles or even a larger territory if necessary. Its main diet is grain seeds, especially waste grain and live stock feed. Sparrows also feed on weeds and insects, especially during the breeding season. The bird also hunt butterflies.
For roosting and nesting they love man-made nooks and crannies.