They were once a common sight, these little birds that are so intrinsic a part of our larger existence. But we began to take them for granted and ceased to take notice of them. Today most of us would be hard pressed to spot the humble house sparrow, known as ‘angadikuruvi' / ‘arikkilli' / ‘annakilli' / ‘veethukilli' in local parlance, and we need something like World Sparrow Day, observed on March 20 every year since 2010, to remind us of our close connection to the one bird that has, over centuries, successfully adapted itself to human life.
“Perhaps it's because we are all so enamoured by the exotic that we cease to notice the wealth of flora and fauna in our own backyard,” muses wildlife photographer Balan Madhavan. Environmental filmmaker Suresh Elamon adds: “Once upon a time, nests of house sparrows were to be found in almost every household as well as in public places such as markets (hence the name angadikuruvi), bus bays, and railway stations where they lived in colonies and survived on food grains, insects, and worms. In fact, they live wherever humans live and in such close quarters to us too. In my younger days, I remember seeing hordes of them fluttering around Chalai market. House sparrows nowadays are not an endangered species, but in all probability they are facing a crisis of survival in what was once their natural range.”
The reasons for the decline of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus indicus) are many, say the experts. “The exact reason cannot actually be pinpointed. Studies show that it may be because of the destruction of its habitat, what with increasing urbanisation and the supermarket culture taking over local markets, lack of insects that are vital for it's young, and even electromagnetic pollution from mobile phone towers that harm its reproductive cycle,” explains Suresh.
Creating awareness about these birds seems to be the key to their survival. “That is why a ‘World Sparrow Day' is important. It is a step in the right direction,” says Biju Mathew, a city-based programming executive with All India Radio, Ananthapuri FM, who won the prestigious Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union's prize for 2011 for the radio documentary Oru Kunjattakuruviyude Aathma Kadha (An Autobiography of a Sparrow) written and produced by him. It is a first person account of a sparrow that has built a nest on the terrace of a house, speaking to the young girl of the house about its life and the problems its kind faces in the world.
“Children sometimes call the sparrow Kunjattakuruvi. In the documentary we have touched upon a range of subjects including habitat destruction, food insecurity, and even incidents such as the ‘Kill a sparrow campaign' during Mao Zedong's rule in China. People, especially children, should be made aware of the importance of the sparrow,” says Biju.
There is however another side to the story. Some birders and experts are divided on whether there is actually a decline in sparrow population. “This is because there has never been any proper scientific database of these birds; never in Kerala, at least. We are more or less going by the frequency of sightings when we talk about the so-called decline. In fact, sparrows have been sighted building nests on mobile phone towers! Perhaps the only recent data is that which is mentioned in Birds of Kerala: Status and Distribution, published by DC Books,” says Dileep K.G., Head of the Department of Sociology, Kalady Sankaracharya University, and president of the Cochin Natural History Society, an NGO for bird conservation.
The society has been running an online sparrow monitoring project since 2010 (birding enthusiasts can record sightings on an online Excel spreadsheet). The Nature Forever Society based in Pune too is running a similar programme – Common Bird Monitoring of India (on its website http://www.cbmi.in.). There are also some measures put in place by other societies such as Kottayam Nature Society to monitor sparrows, while organisations like the city-based Writers and Nature Lovers Forum have installed around 25 nests in Palayam market, which was once a hub for these chirpy birds.
One at a time
As always, individual efforts count the most, and all it takes is a pot with a small hole that is hung somewhere outside to get sparrows to come calling. Beena Menon, a Kochi-based bank employee and birding enthusiast, put up three nests on the balcony of her apartment at Thammanam, a couple of years ago. Today she has over 10 sparrows that visit her nests. “Sparrows, I've noticed, are very territorial. I ensure that the holes in the nests are just big enough for a sparrow to enter. Otherwise the magpie robin will usurp the space! All I do is put out some feed – thena (a sort of seed) and a trough of water. And voila! I wake up to birdsong everyday!” says Beena.