For a long, long time, the chubby,
chirpy house sparrow lived in our midst aplenty. Now, you can't
find them in the urban environment any more. All this has happened
in a span of just a few years.India is not the only place where
the sparrows have disappeared from the cities.
In the Netherlands, they are already an endangered species. In
Britain, their population is dropping at such an alarming rate
that they are now in the red list as a species of 'high
In France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Czech Republic and
Finland, the story is not very different.
This is an environmental alarm bell at its loudest.
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a common bird that
millenniums ago originated in the Mediterranean and came into
Europe and Asia with the spread of agriculture. It was carried
across the Atlantic in mid-19th century as a friend, to help clean
up green inchworms from the trees of New York's Central Park.
It was the most widely distributed species of the world.
Today it is suddenly disappearing in the urban environment. What
this translates into is that the modern urbanization has reached a
level where it can trigger the extinction of a species.
In the past, when the cities were small and there were villages
around, with agricultural land around them, these were vast lungs
of open spaces that separated the urban and the rural, constantly
replenished the air.
In the fields there were occasional clusters of indigenous fruit
trees and bushes that were ideal nesting places for a number of
birds including sparrows. At such places, there was also a pond
that got filled each year with the monsoon spillover from the
In the fields and the grazing lands there were thorny bushes and
trees that provided safe nesting havens for sparrows and other
small birds that kept the area clean of insects. The insects made
ideal infant food for their young ones.
For the first 15 days of their life, house sparrow offsprings live
entirely on these juicy morsels.
In those days, the crop was harvested and gathered at one place
where the grain was separated from the chaff, giving ample time to
the sparrow to take their share for their pest control services
rendered to the farmer.
When the harvest moved to the open grain markets, the birds still
had a chance to peck at it. Back in the household when women
cleaned the grain in courtyards, sparrows were always a constant
companion, feeding on the stray seeds of weeds that were separated
As fields, bushes, tree clusters, marshes and the water bodies
disappear, they are being replaced by urban dwellings, watertight
pavements and roads. Naturally, only some habitants of the
erstwhile eco-system are able to survive.
With no food or safe nesting, birds perish or migrate to more
In the absence of smaller birds that feed on them, insects such as
maggots and flies thrive and carry disease to the human dwellings.
It is not the first time the house sparrows have been ousted from
cities. In the early 20th century when Europe started shifting
from horse-driven transport to motorised vehicles, the house
sparrow population in many cities is said to have declined by
two-third. The cause cited was the lack of cereal fed to the
horses in the open -- a key food supply for birds.
Today the reasons for the sparrows' decline are largely
electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and lack of insect
food due to excessive use of pesticide in urban gardens. But most
certainly, it is the loss of habitat that drives any species
Our gardens and parks are hardly any habitat for birds. In an open
canopy environment with broom cleaned floor, there is neither
nesting material nor food or security from predators.
Can we not think of 'Mini Forests' within the urban set-up? These
should have little ponds to collect the rain run off in small
wetlands, where indigenous aquatic plants can grow and where water
birds in small numbers can find sustenance.
The 'forests' should have fruit-bearing trees forming a low-rise
canopy. There should be unchecked undergrowth to provide shelter
to ground feeding birds and their insect prey. Here bird droppings
and leaf litter should be the only manure.
Once such a system is established, there will be no need to water
the 'forests'. It will be an ideal home for a host of birds and
other forms of life. These 'forests' will demand nothing from us
other than our absence. And, for all you know, the house sparrow
may even stage a come back!
(The author is
a photographer and designer -- and a wildlife enthusiast. He can
be reached on email@example.com)