“It was an August evening. Under the twilight sky, a rare sight almost took my breath away: Hundreds of sparrows foregathering on a bokul (Mimusops elengi) tree on a sidewalk of the busy Guwahati-Shillong Road in Assam. The tree bustled with their chirping but these welcome call notes dimmed under the hustle of a noisy city. It was for the first time I came across a community roost of sparrows at the heart of the city — at a time when the world is voicing concern over their dwindling population. I called up a friend to prepare for a shoot the very next morning. We started before dawn and positioned our camera under the bokul tree.
“As we counted the seconds, my eardrums once again filled with the welcoming chirpy notes. The birds showed up from under the leaves. It seemed as if each and every leaf concealed a sparrow! They reached out for the electric cables, collected on the telegraph poles, dotting each cable overhead; their twitter filling the morning air. Looking at the enormous flock, it is hard to believe the sparrow is now a disappearing species!”
Those have been lines I composed after that engrossing experience I had. More than ten years later, and only a couple of months back, I tried to relive those moments as I waited on the sidewalk of GS Road waiting for the crack of dawn and the birds to show up from under the leaves. My heart was filled with joy to see their numbers only grow over the years! I have found more community roosts of the bird in that same locality. Surely, these have been some of the favourite community roosts where the non-breeding birds foregather!
The sight of such enormous flocks is amazing, but not very common in many other parts of the world. Concerns about the future of the house sparrow actually led to the celebration of World Sparrow Day on March 20. Dedicated to the tiny bird, the Day has been celebrated to raise public awareness about the decline of the house sparrow and all the common birds and biodiversity around us.
This international initiative intrigued many curious minds to study in depth what lies behind the disappearance of the winged companions that evolved with us. The decline had more or less been attributed to ecological disturbance — the destruction of their natural habitat, lack of food for the young and nesting sites, effects of pesticides and the said electromagnetic radiation. Extensive use of pesticides in farms and gardens is killing the bird’s primary food source: insects, pests and worms and threatens the bird’s existence.
Here in Assam, there had been concerns that the shift to new lifestyles even in rural areas, came into conflict with the sparrow’s basic existential needs as the Assam-type roofs gave way to high rises and the use of glass and steel in the buildings reduced the availability of nesting sites for the bird.
However, like most bird species, the house sparrow is highly adaptable — at least my study on the chirpy bird in the city of Guwahati in Northeast India proved that. It is neither the mud-and-thatch dwelling, nor the match box—rather I had seen the bird slowly adapting to their changing environs their own way! They seemed to have learned the art of carving out a comfortable niche even in the little openings of the concrete slabs in the city’s flyovers! I tried to film the sparrows and a few other common bird species around us resulting in a documentary—I Spy Sparrows (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Voppit_Bz1c). It was screened on World Sparrow Day, 2014.
House sparrows are simply inseparable from human habitations. But they have competitors now! The house sparrow (Passer domesticus ) and the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) seem to jostle for space in the urban landscape of Guwahati! A transit survey on the distribution pattern of both species found that compared to other parts of the country, the presence of both species in large numbers in Guwahati proves that these tiny birds are now back from the brink of doom.
It really doesn’t matter whether we put a bit of cereal, or a nesting box or even the right kind of garden hedge for their survival–the Passer domesticus is going to stay! To quote the great Salim Ali –the house sparrow would continue to be a “hanger-on of man”! Their high adaptability to changing circumstances is doing the magic for their survival.