The Secret Lives of Sparrows

So The cocky little things have pulled off a coup de grace that must be the envy of hoodlum crows.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Published: August 26, 2012 9:34:09 pm

So The cocky little things have pulled off a coup de grace that must be the envy of hoodlum crows.

So The cocky little things have pulled off a coup de grace that must be the envy of hoodlum crows,swaggering mynas,shrieking parakeets and oversexed blue rock pigeons. They’ve been crowned the State Bird of Delhi,capital of all India. And this,mind you when they’ve more or less disappeared from VIP Delhi where all the fat cats pout and preen! How have they done it?

Well,for most people,“birds” are synonymous with sparrows. That’s because for decades they’ve been sharing living space with us,and,like many VIPs,not paying any rent. But now,they’re in trouble — not just in Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai — but in other hip cities like London and New York. Reasons for their disappearance come thick and fast: pesticide poisoning,the malevolent effects of radiation from mobile towers,exhaust fumes from vehicles,the use of chemical lawn-fertilizers,sparrow-unfriendly modern architecture. But nothing appears to be pinpointed as it has been in the case of vultures. Maybe it’s a “tipping point” combination of some or all. Apparently,due to one reason or the other,the high-protein caterpillars and other insects that make up the diet of baby sparrows (before they turn into humble vegetarians) have been killed off,so the chicks are starving. Sparrow parents,who happily nested in ceiling fan “cup holders” (and occasionally got decapitated,to say nothing of offering their babies a traumatic maiden flight!) and other nooks and crannies in your house,are unable to access these as double glazing and air-conditioning have become the norm. Prima facie,I’m not too convinced that modern architecture can be entirely blamed: in a two-year monitoring exercise in the grounds of Teen Murti Bhavan (not a modern construction),we failed to record a single sparrow.

Of course,all is not lost,just yet. Many of the markets and residential areas of Old Delhi still have flocks of chattering sparrows descending from the rooftops of houses or out of scraggly trees and bushes to feed on whatever they can get. I’ve heard them chattering en masse in the ornamental bushes and shrubs in Connaught Place. I pulled up at a traffic light near Delhi Gate,and a flock swooped down on to one of the traffic islands,busily pecking at the dana people had thrown before those obese nouveau riche blue rock pigeons could scoff the lot. I’ve heard them chattering at 90 decibels on Raj Niwas Marg,behind my house. Best of all,a flock of around two dozen still visit the garden to check on the pickings,though yes,they’ve stopped nesting in my little balcony as they used to.

But first: apart from the fact that they’re getting scarce,are they worthy of the honour that has been bestowed upon them? Well,they’re cocky,sprightly little birds; the gent is a handsome rake with a dab of cigarette ash on his head,a black waistcoat and black-streaked chestnut plumage. His wife is more conservatively dressed in streaky dark and light brown. Their beady little black eyes will keep a tab on you and they’ll hop away if they think you’re getting just a little too familiar,chirruping nonchalantly. But alas,they can’t stop you from laughing when you watch an enamoured little charmer woo his chosen one. He’ll stick out his chest,droop his wings by his side,arch his rump and strut as the female placidly goes about her business. Of course,I must hastily add,you’re not laughing at the little fellow,god forbid,but the fact that his dance reminds you of so many of our own folk dances. The little fellow is quite a torrid lover — and when they were in residence in my balcony,I watched a pair going at it hammer and tongs on the top of the balcony door,virtually all morning. Ah,and don’t you think that lady sparrow is all that innocent — and thereby hangs a tale.

There were,in fact,two sparrow nests in my balcony at that time,apartment A and apartment B. Alerted by vociferous chirruping one morning,I came out to check what was going on. My jaw dropped: there on the top of the door was the gentleman from apartment B,looking pretty harassed,sandwiched between the ladies of both apartments,shrieking at each other over his head. Evidently,the gent from B had been promising the lady from apartment A,all sorts of things,which obviously he could not deliver,as his wife had got wind of it. Leaving the ladies to battle it out,he fled to the nearby bottlebrush tree,but was immediately followed by his furious wife. The jilted lady from apartment A threw a right royal tantrum and began trashing the nest of her erstwhile clandestine beloved — she made a hell of a mess on the balcony floor.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. Somehow,the gent in apartment B got to know that the handsome fellow next door had been making eyes (and more?) at his wife. I emerged on the balcony the next morning (at around 11 am — I noted the time for scientific reasons),to find both gentlemen on the floor,chest to chest,claws enmeshed,murder in their eyes. Occasionally,they would burst into a flurry of trying to peck each others’ eyes out and then take a breather. I had to shut the balcony door to prevent my dog from eating the pair. They were still at it at 2 pm when reluctantly I had to leave. I still don’t know who won the fight,but that evening there was a very battered and bleeding lady crouched woebegone on the bougainvillea. The gentleman from B had obviously been bashing up his wife. To my mind,any bird capable of such soap-operatic melodrama deserves every honour bestowed upon it.

But what exactly is this honour going to do for the birds? Hopefully,it will make us more aware that sparrows are just not ordinary dime a dozen chiris but need special attention (maybe reservation too). School children could put up nesting boxes and feeders in their playgrounds — as people can do in their gardens — though you’ll need a sparrow-architect to guide you to ensure that mynas don’t muscle in. These little birds,original consumers of wild grass seeds,followed us as we took to agriculture,and then discovered our grain markets and homes. Here they have stayed for thousands of years,adjusting to a more eclectic diet and enlivening our homes with chatter,good cheer and not to mention,the occasional salacious scandal. It’s up to us to see that they stay on.

Ranjit Lal is an environmentalist and bird watcher

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