“If we can’t save sparrows, how can we save tigers?”
Sparrows are everywhere. There they hop and chirp here and there, in parks, on streets and at city squares. Or are they? The bubbly little birds did use to be ubiquitous, but house sparrows have gone increasingly AWOL in recent years from urban landscapes across much of the world. The cause: habitat loss in ever denser urban environments that have been driving them closer to the edge of extinction in many towns and cities.
To stop that from happening, World Sparrow Day, which falls on March 20 each year, seeks to raise awareness of the plight of the chirpy feathered critters. The initiative was launched in 2012 by Mohammed Dilawar, founder of the Indian conservationist group Nature Forever Society.
Sparrows and other creatures that we have long taken for granted, Dilawar argues, must not be neglected, as our harmful activities can have disastrous consequences on them. Yet neglect them we often do. In New Delhi, India’s notoriously polluted capital, and other Indian cities sparrows have become far and few between. While some avian species like pigeons have managed to thrive in new urban environments, others like sparrows have fallen on hard times.
“There are 24 known varieties of sparrows in the world. Over the years, their population has reduced drastically,” weather.com explains. “This, even as evidence emerges that in its 10,000 years of documented existence, the House sparrow (Passer domesticus) — the most commonly found variety in India — has evolved in surprising ways to match human evolutionary patterns. Not only does it live close to human settlements, its genes have also evolved to enable its body to eat and digest human-cultivated food.”
Yet changing urban environments have taken a toll on the little birds. Most new homes boast glass panels for windows but no ventilators where the sparrows once nested. Meanwhile, many leafy patches within urban landscapes have been paved over, which has deprived sparrows of their natural living spaces.
As skyscrapers continue to rise up around urban metropolises, the little birds carry on dying. They often perish by flying into windows. That happens because the birds are unable to see such windows and routinely mistake the reflecting sheets of glass for open sky. Special films on windows and external shutters can help reduce such hazards.
Heavy pollution, too, have taken a toll on sparrow populations, as have diminishing open spaces as a result of over-population. “Noise is another killer,” The Hindustan Times notes. “A study by University of Sheffield, UK, found that the noise could stop adult birds hearing the hunger calls from their dependent offspring.”
In India, where local sparrow populations have plummeted, plans are underway to create new nesting and safe places for sparrows in urban jungles like Mumbai. Conservationists, citizens and government officials have been working together to install thousands of shelters for sparrows on terraces and other suitable areas.
It isn’t just the sparrows whose fate is at stake. By saving the birds, people also help save other urban species. House sparrows, which have long been celebrated in stories and folklore, occupy an important ecological role, both as prey and as plant pollinators. They also feed on the larvae of mosquitoes and insects, thereby helping keep such pest populations in check.
“Common sparrows are going extinct because of mindless urbanisation. They are losing not just their natural habitats but also the essential human touch they need and thrive upon,” Dilawar says. “If we can’t save a sparrow, which is found around us, then it is too ambitious [for us] to save a tiger,” the conservationist adds. “So first we have to save the sparrows and only then can we dream of saving the tiger.”