I recently came across an alphabet book for children. “O” for “Ostrich” it said. I wondered: How many Indian children have seen an ostrich, even in a zoo? If the book is meant to be read in India, why pick ostrich? “O” for “Owl” would have done. I mention another bird because the book listed several birds. It also said “S” for “Sparrow” and I wondered again. There are different types of sparrows. Usually, when one hears sparrow, one thinks of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus). But that’s not the only kind of sparrow. On a visit to Singapore, I remember a discussion in the newspapers. Citizens of Singapore are familiar with the European tree sparrow, not the house sparrow.
A small group (around 20) of house sparrows had been found in a wholesale market. Where had these come from? They must have arrived as stowaways on ships. But Singapore is different. Outside Jurong Bird Park, you won’t see too many birds, not even the ubiquitous house crow. There has been a systematic attempt to get rid of house crows. China is also different. Most people have forgotten. In the course of the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), there was a Four Pests Campaign, directed against rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows (the European tree sparrow). Sparrows bore the brunt of the initial rage, so that the Four Pests Campaign was also known as “Kill a Sparrow Campaign”. However, sparrows not only ate grain, they also ate insects. Once this was realised, sparrows were replaced from the list of four pests, with bed-bugs.
Since 2012, the house sparrow (not any other sparrow) has been Delhi’s state bird. (Since 2013, it has also been Bihar’s state bird.) Without any anti-sparrow campaign, when has a child, residing in Delhi, last seen a sparrow? Delhi has changed a lot since the days we were university students in mid-1970s. For example, just after spring and before the rains, there used to be dust storms, aandhi. (I don’t mean the film, though that too, was from around then.) These certainly seem to have become less frequent. In spring, perhaps more so than autumn, Delhi is beautiful. Flowers bloom. Birds (not just the migratory kind) are everywhere — mynahs, parakeets, koels, starlings, drongos, kites, redstarts, barbets, rock-chats, chiffchaffs, hoopoes, pigeons, hornbills, warblers, bee-eaters, herons, robins, babblers, shrikes, doves, crows, even peacocks. (Twenty five per cent of Delhi’s birds are estimated to be migratory.)
As several environmentalists and ornithologists have told us, bird populations have declined. Within that trend, 40 years down the line from mid-1970s, around our house in Delhi and not on an ornithological trip, I occasionally see each of the birds I have named, some more than others. However, it’s been quite some time since I last saw a house sparrow. I am sure there are some on Delhi’s periphery, perhaps around the ridge. But in mid-1970s, they were everywhere, hopping and chirping around the house and the courtyard, nesting in ventilators.
“El Condor Pasa” is dated (1970) and so is the house sparrow. I am sure younger readers will not get the allusion to Simon and Garfunkel, “I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail”. A sparrow population study was conducted in Delhi in 2007 by TERI. This is what it found. “A total of 28 fixed-radius point count stations were established in five habitat types namely, high-density urban area, medium-density urban area, low-density urban area, agriculture area, and forested area, within the study area.
The results show that the House Sparrow is a dominant species in the agriculture area. However, its density is very low in the urban area as compared to the other co-occurring common bird species such as Rock Pigeon, House Crow, and Common Mynah.” The rock pigeon, house crow or common mynah has not suffered as much as the house sparrow has. India isn’t unusual. Since mid-1970s, in rural England, sparrow populations have declined by 47 per cent. In urban England, the decline has been of the order of 60 per cent. I am not sure what the drop has been in Delhi, though I find a decline of 50 per cent in the last five years mentioned.
I guess times just change and there is not much one can do, beyond declaring March 20 as World Sparrow Day. However, there is a bit more to it than that, as the World Sparrow Day’s site will tell you. “The sparrow, especially the common house sparrow, is one of the most ubiquitous birds on earth and is also one of the oldest companions of human beings. The rationale for celebrating World Sparrow Day is not only to commemorate the event for a day but to use it as a platform to underscore the need to conserve sparrows as well as the urban biodiversity.”
That’s the reason there are Sparrow Awards. But all said and done, with urbanisation and development, the house sparrow’s habitat also changes. How many houses have ventilators now, the favourite place for house sparrows to nest? How many houses are there, as compared to flats, where sparrows can’t get in? Structural materials used for construction have changed. Is grain left out to dry in courtyards and terraces, for them to feed on? Delhi has many more trees now, perhaps the reason for fewer aandhis. But the insects sparrows eat are in bushes and small trees, not these huge ones. Pesticides, herbicides, water shortages and many issues. Some child may certainly ask, what is a sparrow?
(The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal)