They’ve always been the quintessential birds: say “chidiya” to any adult or child and they’d automatically think of sparrows. At least, they used to. No one ever thought that sighting a sparrow would cause hard-nosed birders to break into delighted smiles and zoom in on them with bazooka lenses.
For long, sparrows were a part of most normal households and families. Usually, they’d move in (rent free) into the cup-like holder from where ceiling fans hang, and stuff the bowl with furnishing (soft rubbish and straw), and bring up their families there. Of course, there’d be the occasional tragedy — a harassed parent hastening off or returning from yet another shopping spree for high-protein bugs would miscalculate and get itself beheaded. I’d often wonder what the chicks, peeping out of their nests, would think when they saw the fan blades whirring inches below their home. “Mama and papa must really hate us! They want to get rid of us, so they can go and have a good time! And, at their age, too!” But really, if you were a sparrow chick being brought up in a city like Mumbai or Delhi, it’s a training for life. It’s a hard, cruel world out there, little one, and the sooner you get used to it, the better! If you can dodge through those flashing blades, you’d have no problem evading nasties like crows and hawks.
Sparrows were “family” birds in more senses than one. Their family histrionics and values sometimes mirror ours so marvelously, it’s uncanny. I once had two sparrow families nesting at either end of my small balcony, when something happened. I’m not naming names, but obviously, someone made eyes at (and, maybe, babies with) someone they were not really supposed to. Soon, one morning, I was alerted by a quarrel in the balcony. There, on top of the door, the two ladies had sandwiched a gentleman from one of the residences and were screaming at each other over his head. The gent looked completely zapped, and I thought, “Hah, obviously you’ve been caught in flagrante with the wrong girl. There’s no point looking henpecked now, buddy!” But then I read (to my great delight, I have to admit), that, in family matters and choosing a guy, it’s the lady who, well, wears the pants in sparrow families. So, perhaps the ma’am from one house had winked at the handsome gent next door! The offended lady was so incensed that, after the gent fled the scene (chased by his irate wife), she began vandalising the nest of the seductress.
This vendetta between the two families continued for days. I assumed the cuckolded gentleman (whose wife had been carrying on with the next door beefcake) cottoned on to it, and realised that izzat ka faluda ho gaya. So, one morning I found the two gentlemen lying on the floor, claws enmeshed, eyes blazing with rage, beak to beak. They’d flutter a bit, trying to peck each other’s eyes out, and then, rest: the battle went on for more that two hours and I had to shut the balcony door lest my dog ate both of them. I had to leave the scene, unfortunately, so I don’t know how that battle ended.
Sparrow gents, while henpecked at home, are quite the dandies when out courting. It appears that they like courting in small bachelor groups — they accost a pretty girl, and start strutting their stuff in front of her (it seems uncomfortably like eve-teasing, though, it could also be because there’s safety in numbers, and if the lady wanted to beat them up, she could!) Like many short men (present company excluded), they strut and prance around a girl with their chests thrust out, wings hanging low by their sides, heads cocked back, chirruping away and feinting at each other to show how macho they are. I’m sure there must be a lot of folk dances we perform that use the same steps and techniques.
Sparrows, essentially grain-eaters, began associating with us when we began farming cereals and, while bringing the grain home, spilled a lot of it on the way. They found our barns and storehouses, which proved rations 24X7 and settled in with us, following us to marketplaces, too. But, they were sensible enough never to trust us completely and they’re still difficult birds to “tame”. They expanded their diet and soon found the glitzy cities of the world — London, New York, Paris, Rome, and, most of our Indian cities, so much to their liking that they became “universal” birds, so to speak — until recently.
The decline in their population in these large metropolises has, frankly, been scary. Various theories do the rounds, probably, each has some truth in it: it’s the waves emitted by cell-phone towers, pollution, automobile exhausts, sparrow-unfriendly modern architecture, the rampant use of fertilizers and pesticides that kill off bugs needed for baby sparrows and so on.
It really is a bit of a puzzle: a two-year bird-monitoring project I did in the leafy grounds of Teen Murti House in Lutyens’ Delhi some years ago did not yield a single sparrow. Yet, just a kilometre away, in the garden of the Delhi School of Music, there were sparrows regularly dust bathing. Here at home, sadly, there have been no more sparrow soap operas, even though groups of a dozen or so sparrows still visit the garden from time to time.
The sparrow is Delhi’s state bird, and we celebrate World Sparrow Day every year in March, but, a lot more needs to be done to woo these cheeky charmers back to our homes where they really belong.