In 2005, when Nashik-based environmental conservationist Mohammed Dilawar took up the task of saving house sparrows, he realised the only way was to come up with a “life-saving project” for the immediate population revival of the sociable birds. The chirrup of sparrows was subdued across urban India and the solution, according to him, was to create secondary habitats. He spearheaded the movement by getting citizens involved across cities and setting up nest boxes, bird feeders and water bowls in urban spaces. “The main reasons for the steep decline of house sparrows back then was shrinking green spaces, not enough nesting sites and modern architecture. The rampant use of pesticides in agricultural practices killed insects that baby sparrows are fed,” says Dilawar, who founded non-profit organisation Nature Forever Society (NFS) focussing on conserving common bird species.
Over the years, the project became a micro-level conservation movement to bring back the chirrup of the house sparrows. In 2018, the International Union for Conservation of Nature kept the bird in ‘the least concerned’ category. So the house sparrow population is rebounding, but the bulk of its population is now in rural India.
World Sparrow Day
Observed on March 20, World Sparrow Day is a joint initiative by the India-based Nature Forever Society (NFS) in collaboration with the France-based Eco-Sys Action Foundation and other national and international organisations across the world.
Focus on native plants
However, the fate of the bird, Dilawar realised, was an indicator of a bigger ecological problems. The house sparrow population may have stablised, but Dilawar believes now is a time “to focus on a sustainable long-term answer to the conservation of many other common bird species vying for attention. And one of the key solutions is in creating primary habitats like parklands with native plant species keeping the house sparrow as the keystone species. Ours is a fight to conserve not just the house sparrow, but to save all the common birds and biodiversity found in our immediate environment,” he says. Towards this objective, he started the Native Plant Research Conservation Centre in Nashik in Maharashtra, which now has over 450 species and is working towards creating biodiversity hotspots, the recent one being in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. “Native plant species support the insect population, which is a feed for baby sparrows. Many of the non-native plants are invasive in nature and have ravaged the country’s ecosystem. The classic example of this is Lantena camara,” he adds.
A recent study by Salem Ornithological Foundation (SOF) mapped a detailed distribution of the house sparrow in the 38 districts of Tamil Nadu and for Puducherry using the eBird data to estimate the number of birds. The good news is house sparrows are doing well. But data from the six metro cities of India (Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai) do indicate a gradual decline in their abundance in urban centres, observes SV Ganeshwar of SOF.
“The district-level distribution of the house sparrow in Tamil Nadu appears to be uneven due to the lack of eBirders in some of the districts. It is evident that our State requires more sampling and a lot of contribution to eBird by bird watchers and Nature enthusiasts,” he adds. The study also brought to light to need to focus on species that are actually declining (including some of the common birds) and those in need of instant conservation measures. “Currently, birds of prey, insectivores and waterbirds are rapidly declining due to various anthropogenic impacts,” says Ganeshwar.
N Dhanasekar, founder of Coimbatore-based Chitukuruvigal Arakkattalai, which has been working towards protecting house sparrows and their habitats for over a decade, has planned a ‘sparrow wagon’ activity. “We plan to take a van across educational institutions in the city. It will display illustrations and paintings on sparrows. There will be demos on how to set up an artificial nest boxes with discarded materials like shoe boxes and bird feeders. Discarded bottles can be used to fill grains and hung upside down to attract birds,” says Dhanasekar adding that he has just completed a session with over 100 college students. Besides awareness meetings, and camps at schools, he will also distribute nest boxes and bird feeders to homes and institutions.
In Visakhapatnam, organisations like Green Climate have been organising awareness workshops every year to mark the day in schools and colleges on how to make bird feeders from discarded plastic bottles, clay pots, coconut shells and bamboo baskets. They have also been highlighting the importance of native plant species, which support local flora and fauna.
Alarm bells for other species
“We can call the day (World Sparrow Day), a celebration of love for birds. Why should it be restricted to just house sparrows?” asks P Jeganathan, a scientist who works out of Valparai in the Anamalai mountain ranges of the Western Ghats near Pollachi, about 90 kilometres from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. A founding member of Tamil Birders Network, a citizen outreach programme that organises bird surveys and other activities related to birding every year, Jeganathan says it’s time to turn the spotlight on some of the critically endangered birds for instance, the great Indian bustard.