In the midst of much informed and universal concern about the future of the house sparrow ( Passer domesticus ), one of man’s oldest living commensals, there is a ray of hope yet. For, returning home on the first sun-drenched mid-morning of January 2013, I experienced the heart-stopping moment of seeing 23 house sparrows, basking in the warmth of the sun! Given a conducive habitat, all other side effects of modern day life-styles notwithstanding, the house sparrow should be the last of all to wander off the living planet.
The house sparrow is a sober-looking bird with a ubiquitous spread — from Leh in the North to Cape Comorin in the South and from the Somnath Temple in the West to the Camorta Island in the East. With that kind of a presence, we should be able to spot them anywhere. Ornithologist Salim Ali had labelled them as “man’s hanger-on” for they are known to enter homes nonchalantly, chattering non-stop as they set about arranging their personal living comfort by adding heaps of straw to any potential nest-site, quite unmindful of the householder’s presence.
New lifestyles to blame
But today, most Indians would perhaps know this bird only through photographs. Not even two out of 10 may be able to lay claim to having seen the bird in the outdoors. So why do so few of us encounter the bird despite its worldwide spread? As the bird lives only among humans, it’s not about disappearing forests, but about the pollution around us, including from communication towers, the use of steel and glass in our buildings that has reduced the availability of nesting sites and food, and, where there are gardens, the partiality for exotic rather than indigenous vegetation. This shift to new lifestyles, even in rural communities, is at severe conflict with the house sparrow’s basic existential needs. In China, the house sparrow was exterminated by about the end of the 1960s after being declared the number one crop pest. On the other hand, that very “pest number one” became the angel of progress in America and Australia where it was not native but consciously introduced for pest control in agriculture, to cut down the reliance on chemical alternatives. With time, the house sparrow came to be equivocally feted in both continents. Today, the bird figures high in their avian literature and is much cherished.
Coming back to the large number of resident house sparrows at our home in Chandigarh, there are two contributing factors. One is that my wife has always spread abundant food on the rooftop, every morning. Coupled with that is the availability of secure roosting and nesting niches by way of thick, tall hedges on two sides of the house. Of course, there is natural predation of fledglings by crows and by an odd Shikra (a hawk sub-species) but the house sparrow is a sturdy breeder raising three broods of two to five chicks, thrice each year. So the population does not merely “hold” at the optimum survival figure for the given area at our home but also feeds the neighbourhood. As simple as that!
No description of the bird will be complete without a mention of the strong streak of tenacity in its character. And here I can do no better than quote the master, Edward Hamilton Aitken (born in Satara, Maharashtra, in the mid-19th century to Scottish parents) from his book “ Common Birds of Bombay ” (1900): “And when a Sparrow makes up its mind nothing will unmake it except the annihilation of that Sparrow. Its faithful spouse is always, and very strongly, of the same mind. So they set to work to make a hole in the corner of the ceiling-cloth and they tear and tug with an energy which leaves no room for failure. Then they begin to fetch hay and the quantities which a couple will carry in a day is miraculous…. I declare solemnly that you might have fed a horse on the hay which I removed daily as most of it tumbled down….”
Much like most bird species the house sparrow is highly adaptable. Even though its traditional wilderness has been usurped and its living niche inside man’s once mud-and-thatch dwelling replaced with glass and concrete, the house sparrow could well be the last on this living-planet if mankind were to spare just one hundredth of its cereal intake for the bird and make space for it around homes, where possible by planting indigenous hedges, and if there is no garden, by simply providing a nesting box. That’s not too much to ask.
(Baljit Singh is a retired Lieutenant General of the Indian Army.)