Where have the sparrows gone?

The rapid changes in the lifestyles of humans in urban areas are increasingly incompatible with the conservative lifestyles of sparrows

September 14, 2014 12:50 am | Updated 07:38 am IST

The sudden disappearance of sparrows is a warning to humans about impending environmental hazards

The sudden disappearance of sparrows is a warning to humans about impending environmental hazards

The House sparrow and its subspecies are worldwide in their distribution, except in the polar regions. Sparrows have had a symbiotic relationship with humans for the past 10,000 years. Poets have sung of their trust and love for each other in all languages. But strangely, over the past 50-60 years, sparrows have been sadly deserting human company in urban areas, preferring suburban areas and the countryside, and only making brief visits to nearby human habitats. So bewildering and absolute was their alienation that in 2002, sparrows were included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in the U.K. and since 2010, March 20 has been adopted as World Sparrow Day. In 2012, Delhi adopted the House sparrow as its State bird.

Reasons for decline

Sparrows, though tiny, are very sensitive and strongly immune birds, and their sudden disappearance as sentinels or as ecological indicators is a warning to humans about impending environmental hazards. Several speculations have been put forward to account for sparrows deserting our cities, but they all boil down to the simple fact that the rapid changes in the lifestyles of humans in urban areas are increasingly incompatible with the conservative lifestyles of sparrows.

Non-availability of tiny insects as food due to the loss of vegetation around our modern buildings, the excessive use of mosquito repellents indoors and insecticides outdoors, our concrete architectures with no nesting sites for sparrows, and air-conditioning which leaves no entry or exit points for feeding sparrow nestlings are some of the reasons for the dislocation of sparrows. Further, increasing noise from automobiles and their gaseous pollutants in our cities may be deterrents. Above all, the recent increase in electromagnetic radiations from cell phone towers outdoors and the explosive use of diverse wireless devices indoors have also chased away the birds. It could be the synergistic effect of all these environmental pollutants that has compelled sparrows to fly away from their long-trusted human companions.

Other bird species

The House sparrow in reality is but only one among the several other species of birds and biodiversity that have been declining in numbers for the past 60 years. The disappearance of sparrows — as they are closest to humans — is however the most obvious. Sparrows, in fact, started disappearing from cities even before the advent of the cell phone radiations. Rachel Carson in her multi-award winning book, Silent Spring , published in 1962, warned the whole civilised world in a visionary way that insecticides were being used indiscriminately by illiterates from 1939 onwards and were tending to be “biocides” — killing not insects alone, but all life, even human lives, directly or indirectly. Unless all these “elixirs of death” as Carson calls them, are under check, sparrows, or for that matter any other species, cannot be prevented from reducing in numbers or becoming extinct.

Sparrows may not become extinct, but being resilient, they may migrate to safer zones, feed at public granaries, market places, ports and rail stations, nest at nearby sites and adapt to stabilise their population. As the famous evolutionist Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest nor the most intelligent that will survive but those that can adapt to changes.” Sparrows are so adaptive that “not one of them shall fall to the ground.” On the contrary, Edward O.Wilson, the Harvard visionary of biodiversity, is afraid that having annihilated the entire biodiversity on earth, humans, left alone like the child of divorced parents, may suffer a severe emotional shock of loneliness and enter what he calls the “Eremozoic Era” or the Age of Loneliness.


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