By giving the birds shelter at home, B. Kolappan tries to free his soul of guilt

No bird fascinates me more than a house sparrow. There was no dearth of sparrows in my village — near Kanyakumari — which was sandwiched between three lakes and paddy fields on one side and coconut groves and paddy fields on the other. The birds thrived as there was constant supply of grasshoppers, dragonflies and other insects, besides plenty of grains.

It was wonderful watching the bird catching insects or effortlessly removing the outer husk of the paddy with its small but hard beak. Equally fascinating was the sight of parent sparrows entering their nests with mouthful of insects to feed the chicks. As a boy I had kept sparrow chicks as pets, but they never survived beyond a few days. The maximum they lived was a week. Though they nested in the eaves of roofs and the narrow cracks on the stone walls of temples, their favorite spot for nesting was the wells in the backyard of houses. There was a well in every house and the sparrows would nest in the crevices in the outer ring of the well wall. The owners of these houses would not allow us to collect the chicks from the nest as they believed that sparrow nest brought prosperity.

My friends and I would usually target the wells when the owners were not around. We would periodically check the big well inside our temple for nests. The eggs would hatch after the second week and we would collect the chicks only after the follicles had been covered with feather. Entering a narrow and deep well was a great art, which we had mastered. All we needed was a toehold. We would spread our legs, which would cover the radius of the well and in a flash we would be inside. The bird would normally build its nest a couple of feet below the surface. We would poke our hands into the holes and feel the nest inside. The cry of the parents, as we would emerge out of the well with the chicks in our pockets, continue to haunt me even today. Sometimes we would wait for the birds to enter the well and rush towards it with a blanket and cover the mouth of the well. The poor birds thus would become an easy prey and we would keep both the parents and the chicks as pets, hoping that the parents would stay for the sake of feeding their chicks. Sometimes the parent sparrows accepted grains, but they wouldn’t feed the chicks. The entire family would die in a week. Unmindful of the tragedy, we would start our hunt again.

One person who constantly warned me against catching sparrows and other birds such as mynas, wagtail and parrots was my father. He would point out that my reckless entry into wells and poking my hands into holes could prove fatal. His cousin, a bird-catcher like us children, had died of viper bite when he had put his hand into a hole to catch sparrows. But the fear of snakebite never discouraged us.

In Chennai, I have been living in a house with typical Madras roofing, an ideal place for sparrows to nest. When I arrived here seventeen years ago, there were a lot of them, flying in and out of the house, in search of spiders and cockroaches. The timid bird tearing apart a cockroach is worth watching. But soon there was a slump in their population, the culprit being a cat who could pounce on a vulnerable chick now and then. Until a few months ago, there was only one pair living in a nest under the air-conditioner. I placed a box in the gap between the bathroom wall and corrugated roof. The birds quickly adopted it as their home. I also placed a clay pot, which they adopted too. Today there are seven birds including two fledglings that have their mouths open when the parents bring food. I too leave behind rice, thinai (foxtail millet), kampu (pearl millet) and kezhvarhu (finger millet). I also allow the birds to devour the tender leaves of potted plants. It is my way of atoning for the death of so many sparrows I’ve caused as a child.

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