A group of headload workers and vendors are doing their bit to help house sparrows thrive in Connemara Market, Palayam. They tell MetroPlus about their successful efforts at grassroots conservation

The house sparrows at Connemara Market, Palayam, are a chirpy lot, unobtrusively fluttering about the place, their cheerful cheeps coming as a welcome surprise amid the non-stop hustle and bustle. Standing watch over the birds, known as ‘angadikuruvis’ in local parlance, is a bunch of headload workers and vendors who work in the market. Led by R. Manian, S. Jayakumar, H. Ashokan, S. Murugan, M.A. Rashid and A. Selvaraj, these grassroots conservationists have taken it upon themselves to protect the birds, the numbers of which are on a decline across the world.

“What’s interesting about it is that all of these men are doing their bit for conservation voluntarily, without any real understanding of the scientific process or the environmental need behind it,” says C. Rahim, convener of the Writers’ and Nature Lovers Forum, which put up 25 wooden nest boxes for sparrows in the market back in 2011. “It is largely their hands-on care and interest in the cause that is helping the sparrows thrive. Their contribution is immeasurable,” he adds.

K.B. Sanjayan and M.R. Kiran of Travancore Natural History Society (TNHS), an NGO working in biodiversity and wildlife conservation, which did a count of the house sparrows in the city on the occasion of World Sparrow Day (March 20), agree. “We found these men to be a storehouse of knowledge on the sparrows in Connemara Market. We also found that they were doing great work in up-keeping and renovating the nests. They were even able to point out the nests that have fledglings and also ones that have been rendered empty consequent to the leaving of a litter. Some of them have even put up discarded plastic jars and broken pots as nests, which the birds have whole-heartedly accepted for nesting,” say the duo.

The men themselves seem to approach their conservation efforts with more than a hint of nostalgia. Says Selvaraj, a headload worker and vendor of plantain leaves: “It is really disheartening to see their numbers in decline, especially when most of us remember a time when the market was a citadel for sparrows, when their cheeps were a part of the daily rhythm of the market. Till a decade ago at least, there were many to be found on the road leading to the arched gateway where there were once wholesale stores selling grain. The stores, which functioned in a row of tiled-roof buildings, were also good nesting spaces for the sparrows.”

His colleagues Murugan and Rashid explain: “In those days, before the buildings were torn down to make way for the parking lot and the TRIDA complex, truck loads of grain used to arrive at the market. Inevitably, some of the grain spilled on to the road when sacks were loaded or unloaded. Also the grain was kept in open gunny bags in front of the stores. So the sparrows had plenty of feed. In fact, M.A. John who owned one the wholesale provision stores, had a soft spot for the birds and he used to make sure that there was enough grains scattered on the road for them. He didn’t even mind when the sparrows nicked grain from the store!”

The men attribute the decline in the sparrow population in the market to this lack of feed. “The sparrow’s main source of food is grain. They also do the vendors here a favour by eating worms and insects such as cockroaches. At present only three to four sacks of grains arrive in the market daily and there doesn’t seem to be much spillage to go around. That’s why every week we pool in money and buy bird feed, which we then scatter around the place,” says Manian.

Nowadays most of the sparrows are found in and around the archway (where a majority of the nests have been put up) and also in the adjacent vegetable market. “When the authorities came (recently the Forest Department and Writers’ and Nature Lovers Forum joined hands to put up 50 more nests) we helped them identify places where nests could be put up,” says Murugan. “But the sparrows are generally very cautious. They don’t take to a nest immediately. They fly around it and check it out for at least a week before they settle into it,” he adds .

“This is now the fourth or fifth generation of sparrows, after the nests were put in place in 2011,” says fellow headload worker Jayakumar, pointing to a sparrow quietly foraging for food on the ground near the archway, seemingly oblivious to the pitter-patter of feet or the full-throated calls of vendors.

“Sparrow is one species of bird that thrive in the human environment. It’s not a big effort to look out for them really. You just have to ensure they have access to water – a few vessels of water here and there will suffice – and of course, occasionally shoo away the crows, the shrikes and the cats that come to filch the fledglings,” says Jayakumar. It’s as simple as that, it seems.

101 and counting

TNHS’ annual sparrow survey found that there are 101 house sparrows living in Connemara Market. “In 2012, the count stood at 148 birds. But the decline noted now is not a major cause for worry, as its population is more or less on a healthy footing here,” says Sanjayan.