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Where have all the sparrows of Bengaluru gone?

March 20 is celebrated as the World Sparrow Day. Sparrows, and not dogs, have been with humans for the longest period of time, and, yet, humans drove them away.

March 19, 2023 / 11:04 AM IST


One of my childhood memories is of walking on a mud trail along the perimeter of a shimmery lake to reach the stud farm where my grandfather was the resident vet. It was near Yelahanka on the outskirts of Bengaluru and all around the large lake grew tall grass, bulrushes, and wild greenery. There were so many sparrows flitting around but I would keep my eyes peeled for the blue kingfishers. Now, the lake doesn’t exist and its lakebed has apartment buildings instead of water. There are no sparrows, a sight which was taken for granted just a few decades back.

As yet another World Sparrow Day arrives, it’s no exaggeration to say that the little house sparrow aka English sparrow have practically left the city. “Every time people ask me what they can do to bring back the sparrows,” says Dr MB Krishna, a city-based ecologist and ornithologist, “I tell them that the sparrows are gone. You can’t get them back. People are still brainwashed into thinking that it is possible!”

Dr Krishna has a lot to speak about the lovable dull-looking sparrows. “When was the last time you saw a house with bare mud within its compound instead of concrete or tiles? When was the last time you saw grass growing along the roadside, which, by the way, is the last vestige of wild greenery?” These things matter, according to Dr Krishna, because the sparrows are essentially insect eaters and thrive in such habitats, as they hunt for insects.

Today, wild greenery is seen only in fields and vacant sites, both of which are fast disappearing thanks to the city’s penchant for apartment buildings. A longtime resident of Whitefield in east Bengaluru spoke of sighting two-three sparrows at a field in front of his house. “Don’t know when they will start construction here. Now we just have buildings and more buildings, pigeons and paved roads that are constantly dug up. We lost the sparrows when these things started to happen.”

Traditionally, sparrows live near human habitations and are fed millet or rice grains by the people who welcome their presence. In Bagalur Layout, in Richards Town, north-east Bengaluru, lives Edwin Joseph, 73, aka the Sparrow Man. Joseph’s house is famous for the sparrows that come there for feeding since the past 15 years. Until three years back, about 200 sparrows would feed from the feeders filled with millet, and dip their beaks into the multiple water baths placed around the compound premises. Joseph had lined the compound wall with large pots with small trees which served as thick canopy for the tiny birds and had even hung nesting boxes from his house’s ledges. Not surprisingly, his house has been a famous landmark in the neighbourhood.

Every year, around World Sparrow Day, he would be flooded with a deluge of reporters visiting his house and recording the birds. This year will be different. “There are hardly 10-15 sparrows visiting now,” he said. The reason, according to him, is a private cell-phone tower that has been installed recently. Although he has been campaigning for its removal, the sparrows have left. “Three years back, when my wife passed away, I had gone away for a while,” he said. “When I returned, the cell-phone tower was there and the sparrows weren’t. The radiation has affected the sparrows.” He still feeds the 10 odd sparrows who are now joined by bulbuls and pigeons. “At least, I get to see sparrows every day but I don’t know for how long.”

Author Shoba Narayan, who is an avid birder, has been ruing about the sparrows' absence in the city. “They are one of the most endearing birds in India,” she said. “For a long time, they were everywhere and then, suddenly they disappeared. Today, you can find these birds, of all places, at the airport. In fact, there was a campaign to bring back sparrows through the use of nest boxes. You could line a cardboard box with hay and hang it up in the balcony that is fairly private. You will find that a number of birds will come and nest there, including sparrows.”

That idea, Dr Krishna says, will work only where sparrows are already there. “You can’t place a nest box in an area where there are no sparrows and expect the bird to come. Nothing will get them back. You may get warblers, sunbirds and such small birds if you have the right plants to attract them.” Which is why, he espouses renaming the World Sparrow Day to maybe International Day for Little Birds.

“The King is dead,” Dr Krishna thunders. “Long live the King.” One could laugh at the dramatic statement but sadly, it is true. The sparrows, after all, are gone. In Bengaluru, at least.

How the sparrow day came into being

The World Sparrow Day was an initiative by Mohammed Dilawar, an Indian conservationist and founder of Nature Forever Society, in collaboration with the Eco-Sys Action Foundation (France) and several other national and international organisations across the globe. The first World Sparrow Day was observed in 2010. In a telephonic interview, Dilawar, says, “To save sparrows, one must understand their evolution.” He believes that for over 10,000 years, sparrows have evolved with the humans. In fact, it is the sparrows, and not dogs, who have been with humans for the longest period of time. Dilawar lists the issues that have lead to the reduction in sparrow numbers:

Issues faced by sparrows

Nesting: Around 40-50 years back, my grandma’s house had sparrows nesting in alcoves within the house. The windows and doors would be open all the time so the birds were free to come and go. Outside, there used to be many nooks and crevices, including in the tiled roofs in which they could nest. No one minded them. Today, this intimate relationship is broken. The modern architecture and the attitude that people have towards birds nesting anywhere inside the house are leaving few places for the sparrows to nest.

Food: Remember buying groceries from kirana stores where the grains were stored in open boxes? The sparrows would have a field day eating the fallen grains and insects. Now think of the supermarkets and pre-cleaned grains being packaged in plastic. Similarly, farmers, too, would store and transport the grains in jute bags. Now, the grains are harvested and stored in plastic bags making it harder for the sparrows to get to the food. Since sparrows eat insects, any change in the urban landscape will affect the birds. The mindless introduction of non-native plants may have reduced the insects on which the sparrows feed. Also, the waterbodies are polluted which makes it harder for the sparrows to thrive.

Electromagnetic radiation, too, has affected the population of the bird. All of these issues happened almost all at once and the sparrows have been ambushed. I had decided that what happened to the Indian vultures shouldn't happen to the sparrows. I am very optimistic about sparrows. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to work for their conservation.

Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist.