This happens so often, doesn’t it? There are people you don’t know but who you see everyday – a woman at the busstop, the conductor on the bus, a vegetable seller, a watchman, a neighbour in the building opposite. Complete strangers but because you see them everyday, you take their presence for granted and after a while, you see them without noticing them. Then one fine day, you suddenly realize that you don’t see them anymore. You don’t know when it happened, but they seem to have just vanished. Which is when you begin to look out for them. And when they don’t reappear, you realise that they are gone. You miss their presence and wonder what made them disappear, where they could be right now etc., etc.
Which is exactly what is happening to this little creature. For thousands of years, it has followed us humans around this planet, setting up residence wherever we have and becoming so much a part of the landscape of our daily existence that the second half of its botanical name is “domesticus” which is the Latin word meaning "belonging to the household," (from the latin domus "house’.) Its full name? Passer domesticus. Or more familiarly as we all know it - the sparrow. (To distinguish it from its cousins - since there are around 35 varieties of sparrows - the official name is “house sparrow”). “Chidi” or “gouriya” in Hindi, “chimani” in Marathi and “ chittu kuruvi” in Tamil. But for me, it will always be “gubbachi”, the sparrow’s Kannada name, which, by its very sound, captures the endearing persona of this little bird.
There was a time not that long ago when sparrows were some of the most familiar sights and sounds all over India, in city, town and village. Busily bathing their plump little bodies in the dust. (Dust baths are how many birds to rid their plumage of lice and mites.) Noisily quarreling in nests somewhere up in the rafters or the attics. Excitedly pecking at grain in the courtyards of houses or in marketplaces, grain godowns, even cattle sheds and horse stables. And heralding the end of each day with a brief but cacophonous chirrup-concerto.
There was a time not so long ago when we thoughtfully scattered handfuls of grain for the sparrows to feed on. And according to Mr. Ragoo Rao, nature lover, wildlife enthusiast and long-time sparrow-watcher, no matter how much of a nuisance their droppings were and how untidy their nest building habits and no matter how randomly they chose the sites for their nests (sometimes behind portraits of dead ancestors or in the family grandfather’s clock!), sparrows were always welcome in homes because they were considered a good omen, the Brahmins amongst birds!
Alas, not anymore. Now, more likely than not, like that lady on the bus that you don’t see anymore, you try and remember the last time you saw a sparrow and wonder when and how they disappeared. Sadder still, ask a child or a teenager and they are likely to say, “Sparrow? What is that?” And the sparrow seems to have disappeared not just in India, but across the world, especially in Europe. In Netherlands, the decrease in the sparrow population – according to one estimate, as much as 50% – has prompted this little bird to be declared an endangered species. As it has been in Britain, where the sparrow once used to be such an integral part of the English landscape that it is also called the English sparrow. 30 years ago, 12 million pairs nested in Britain. Today there are no more than 7 million pairs. In London the statistics are even more depressing. In Kensington Gardens, 2,603 house sparrows were counted in 1925. In 2001, just 4 males were left and by the following summer, they had altogether disappeared. By the beginning of the new millennium, the sparrow had virtually vanished from London’s beautiful parks. (Source – The Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 2002)
“I haven’t seen a sparrow in a long time, though my garden has over 80 different kinds of birds." Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit at the inauguration of ‘Quotes from the Earth’ New Delhi, 04/11/2006
And in India? Well, while we’ve all noticed that we don’t see sparrows anymore, nobody really knows how serious the problem, primarily for lack of any organised bird count. Why? I guess the reasons are many. For one, though it seems like it, the sparrow hasn’t really disappeared altogether. Records of recent sightings have trailed the sparrow in many parts of South India and all along the Western coast, from Kerala through Karnataka, some parts of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, right up into Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir even Ladakh. Sightings have also been recorded at various animal sanctuaries like Bandipur in Mysore, the Corbett National Park, Periyar and Ranthambore National Park. But perhaps what is most heartening is that though not seen anymore in many big cities like Bangalore, Coimbatore and Hyderabad, it can still be seen in places like Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Agra, Cochin etc.
(Source : Indian Wildlife section of Wikipedia - http://www.wildindia.org/birds/viewid.php?bird_id=856 and Aasheesh Pittie, editor, Indian Birds)
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the sparrow is still a species of “Least Concern’ i.e. it has the lowest risk of extinction and continues to populate our planet in abundant numbers. So, things are not that bad for the sparrow - as yet.
But perhaps the other main reason for the blurry picture on the status of the sparrow in India is that the disappearance of this little Plain Jane of birds is not glamorous enough to be a “cause”. It’s fashionable to be concerned about the vanishing rain forests of Amazon. (Ironic, when as much harm is being done to our very rainforests in the Western Ghats, listed as one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots!). It’s politically correct to worry about the extinction of the Ridley turtle and the lion-tailed Macaque monkey. But the sparrow – I mean, ho-hum. Isn’t that a bit like worrying about the extinction of the hen or the housefly?
"When I first started studying the sparrow just after the (Second World) War, most of my colleagues didn't think it worthy of even being called a bird. Now it is a high-profile bird." Dr. Denis Summers-Smith, world renowned expert on sparrows.
Be that as it may, the question still remains - do we know why the sparrow is vanishing? Theories abound. (It all started between the two world wars, when the motorcar ousted horse-drawn transportation off the roads, taking away sparrow food, which was the grain spilt from horses’ nosebags or what was left undigested in dung.) Everything from cats, pesticides, global warming, changes in urban architecture that have taken away natural sparrow nesting sites for the sparrows like gables, attics and tiled roofs. Some even blame it on mobile phones (see box). But none of these theories have been supported by conclusive evidence. So much so that in 2000, Britain’s The Independent newspaper announced an award of 5000$ for anyone who could come up with “first properly accepted scientific answer”. Though the award was never claimed, according to Dr. Dennis Summers-Smith, the world expert on sparrows who was on the newspaper’s panel of judges for the award, the most plausible explanation came from Kate Vincent, a post-graduate researcher at De Montfort University, Leicester who studied the sparrows’ breeding habits for 5 years as part of her Ph.d. thesis. Her conclusion was that the sparrow’s decline was largely because their chicks were starving to death!
You see, adult sparrows are granivorous birds - they live on grain and other seeds. But in the first few days of their lives, they feed exclusively on insects. Which just aren’t available in sufficent quantities anymore, especially in urban environments either because there aren’t enough gardens and greenery. Or then, because ironically, these insects may have become the victims of the very thing that is supposed to help save the environment – unleaded petrol. According Dr. Dennis Summer-Smith, there is a possibility that the byproducts of combusting unleaded petrol are toxic substances that kill off insects. (Though even he says that this is “highly speculative and highly circumstantial"!)
And thousands of miles away from Europe, in my hometown of Mysore, Mr. Ragoo Rao, who has been studying the decline of the sparrow since 1988, has come to similar conclusions. That one of main reasons for the disappearance of the sparrow – even from the beautifully lush, green Mysore suburb that he lives in - is because the chicks just don’t have enough insects to feed on. (Lack of grain for adult sparrow to forage on and loss of nesting habitat are the other reasons that he sites.)
“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” Henry David Thoreau
Right. So there aren’t as many sparrows as there used to be. But what is all the to-do about? If there are a few less sparrows, will the Gangotri glaciers melt away? Or the Brahmaputra dry up? Perhaps not in our lifetimes. But the fact is that such is the immeasurable complexity of that immense circuit board that we call Nature that our knowledge of how it functions is probably equal to how much a person with 20/500 vision can see. For example, alarm bells about the effects of global warming have been ringing loud and clear for a long time now. But nobody could predict that in the Monteverde cloud forests of Costa Rica where the gorgeous harlequin frog has thrived for at least a million years, the increase in temperature would make a fungus to flourish that would cause the skin of these frogs to lose its porousness and make them die of dehydration. The last time Alan Pounds, an ecologist who has studied these forests for 25 years, saw harlequin frog was in 1988. So nobody knows the fallout of the decline or extinction of a species however seemingly inconsequential and however abundant in numbers. Or what would be the impact if the sparrow does vanish. (Source : Newsweek, October 16, 2006)
But, to quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow..…”
In 1906, a small boy, just eight or nine years old wrote his very first bird note. It was about his observations of the sparrow. About a year later, it was his hunt for the identity of another little bird (“it looked like any other female sparrow I sometimes got except that it had a yellow patch on the throat, like a curry stain”) that he and his mates had shot down in a schoolboy prank that took this boy to visit the Bombay Natural History Society. The bird was the Yellow Throated Sparrow and it was a providential visit. Because it kindled in the boy a passion for birds that burned so steady and so bright that he went on to be known as the “Birdman of India” and one of the world’s most renowned ornithologists. His name? Dr. Salim Ali. And so, it was but natural that almost 80 years after his first bird note, when Dr. Ali wrote his autobiography, he titled it The Fall of the Sparrow.
And perhaps there is a special providence in the decline of the sparrow….
Think about it. It is not that long ago that tigers and elephants and hippos and orangutans were so abundant on this planet that we thought nothing of decimating their numbers, much less that one day, there would be the very real possibility of their extinction. If the orangutan disappears from the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, the Nasdaq will not collapse. Nor if the tiger vanishes from the mangroves of the Sunderbans. But these terrible possibilities is making us - however dimly - to comprehend that with every animal that becomes extinct, we disconnect a very important wire in the ecosystem that is ultimately connected to our own existence. The destruction of any species is another death knell for us and the planet. So, perhaps there is a special providence in the fall of the sparrow. To remind us that
“Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)
For now, as millions of little gubbachis still continue to add their bird song to the music of this sphere, I end with these beautiful lines from a 1905 Negro Spiritual written by Civilla D. Martin.
I sing because I'm happy,
I sing because I'm free,
For His eye is on the sparrow.
And I know He watches me.
(With grateful thanks to Mr. Aasheesh Pittie, editor Indian Birds and Mr. Ragoo Rao)
Blame it on your mobile
According to Dr S. Vijayan, Director of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), a number of studies conducted indicate a positive correlation between the increase in electromagnetic waves and the decrease in the number of sparrows. (“More mobiles, and sparrows take flight” by Ambarish Mukherjee; Business Line, Nov. 30, 2003)
France’s Beloved Little Sparrow
She was not just France’s most beloved singer and a national icon, but an international star whose signature song "La vie en rose" was voted into Grammy Hall of Fame Award, 52 years after she popularised it in 1946. When she died in 1963, just 47 years old, her funeral procession in Paris was the only time, since the end of World War II, that the traffic came to a complete halt. She was discovered in 1935 by Louis Leplée, the owner of a Parisienne nightcub and her dimunitive (4’’8’) and extremely nervous persona prompted him to give her the nickmae. name La Môme Piaf . She kept part of that name and became known to the world as Edith Piaf. Piaf in Parisian jargon means "sparrow".
Did you know
…that because the sparrow’s double call sounds like the word “phillip” it was once also called the "Phillip Sparrow"?
….that more than 50% of all bird species accounting for around 5,400 species are called passerines, getting their names from Passer Domesticus. Or the little House Sparrow.)