Where have the Sparrows gone?
While growing up in Pune, I have spent many lazy afternoons reading, and watching sparrows hop around right inside our house and in the balcony. Sparrows and Mynas. Nowadays there are only see crows in that area. Crows, I think, are ugly, and very aggressive as well. Ravens I think are far more beautiful.
Imagine my joy when I saw sparrows again, in the place where we live presently. This is the sparrow I spotted outside my kitchen window. We see quite a few of them as they have made a nest here.
Over the years, as we moved from one city in India to another, I always wondered where the sparrows had gone. I assumed that the ever growing population of stray dogs, crows, rats and cockroaches were somehow depriving the sparrows of their food. This is not the only reason, but I’ll get to that a little later…
Sparrows are disappearing in urban centres all over the world
Here’s a 2001 article in the Independent which gives some idea of what is happening to sparrows in the rest of the world:
The sparrow, once the exemplar of a commonplace bird, is becoming increasingly rare in France and other European countries…. French ornithologists have now charted a steep decline in Paris and other French cities. There has been an even sharper fall in urban populations in Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Finland… As in Britain, where sparrow numbers are believed to have fallen by 90 per cent in the past 15 years, continental ornithologists can find no coherent explanation for the sudden decline…The mystery is especially deep in Paris, which is believed to have lost 200,000 sparrows – maybe one in 10 of the population – in the past 17 years. At the same time, the presence of somewhat more exotic “country” birds in the capital – from blackbirds to jays, kestrels and swifts – has increased.
India didn’t have this problem earlier, but now it’s becoming acute because of rapid industrialisation. China has an even more acute problem…I did not see a single bird in all the four cities of China that we visited last year. In India we do see birds in the cities, but they are mostly the sturdy crows and pigeons. Smaller birds like Mynas and sparrows are rarely seen.
A recent article in the Times of India discussed the disappearing sparrow in Mumbai:
Rapid urbanisation and increasing pollution is spelling doom for the small ubiquitous sparrow, which was earlier found in large numbers in the city… the root cause of the disappearance of these birds is massive development work which leads to cutting of trees and mangroves, besides pollution that is troubling many other species also…
While the lack of nesting places and feeding opportunities are cited as possible reasons, by the article in The Independent, other reasons are given as well, like the possibility of some disease that affects sparrows. In fact the newspaper had carried out a campaign to create awareness of the disappearing sparrow and offered a £5,000 prize for the first convincing scientific explanation! As far as I know, this prize was never given out.
A lot of research seems to be on though, to find out the reasons for the disappearing sparrow. One thing is clear – sparrows are susceptible to effects of pollution. In fact all birds are affected by industrial pollution. There have been studies using birds as a biomonitor to detect urban metal pollution. Humans may get diseases because of pollution, but birds seem to dying off. Cockroaches and rats proliferate though! Probably because they are not that severely affected by atmospheric pollution (as birds).
In Mumbai, bird lovers are providing shelters like wooden boxes on trees, which can be used as nests by sparrows. They have put up more than 1,000 boxes across the city so far. Hopefully this has some beneficial effect. But just today I saw a horde of crows hounding the sparrows outside my window, trying to drive them away from their nest.
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