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Issue 36
, 2012
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Disappearing sparrows: Common bird goes uncommon

Source: One World South Asia, Date: , 2012

Sparrow population continues to decline in urban areas of India. Lack of research and understanding has aggravated the rate of their disappearance. These birds being an indicator of environmental health, needs to be saved before they become extinct.

New Delhi: Gone are days when house sparrows were the most common birds amongst bird species in India. The chirpy sounds made by these small birds are rarely heard today; and their absence, even though tiny, is increasingly becoming noticeable. Due to decrease in numbers, a bird as common as the sparrow was included by the IUCN in its Red Data List of threatened species in 2002 alongside the glamorous snow leopard, tiger and red panda.

How and why did these common birds that were once regarded as dominant bird species, suddenly disappear? This is a question frequently asked by ornithologists, researchers, scientists, and bird lovers. At a discussion, disappearing sparrows, organised by Toxics Link in collaboration with India International Centre, in Delhi on Tuesday, experts discussed the reasons for the decline in the sparrow population.

The destruction of wetland bird areas, loss of shrub vegetation coupled with reduction in potential breeding sites, has accelerated the rate of decline in the sparrow population in India. But the major reason for this decline in their number is the scarcity of insects and grains which serve as protein supplements for the young ones of sparrows. The presence of anti knocking agents like lead in petrol is known to cause deadly poisoning in birds.

Sparrows as an indicator of change

Since sparrows are sensitive to changes in the environment, they serve as an important bio-indicator for a healthy urban ecosystem, indirectly indicating human health, and their decline today has started resulting in increasing diseases among the people, said Neeraj Khera, Technical Expert – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). She added that the growing numbers of rock pigeons has created an imbalance among the species and they now dominate the bird population.

People in urban areas are often seen feeding grains to rock pigeons. Due to availability of plenty food which gives these pigeons bliss of food security has resulted in over-explosion of their population. These pigeons are now occupying the nesting spaces of sparrows, as a result of which the sparrow population has drastically reduced in urban areas in the country.

Calling sparrows a star species, Koustubh Sharma, Research Associate, Nature Conservation Foundation & Co-investigator, BNHS-Citizen Sparrow Project, noted that in the same way as snow leopards are considered indicators of climate and environmental changes at higher altitudes, sparrows are indicators of such changes in the urban ecosystem; and hence can be regarded as the snow leopard of the urban ecosystem.

Evidence of absence or absence of evidence

Sharma added that due to lack of research and understanding, the reasons for the vanishing of sparrows are still unknown. He added: “We still lack a large scale systematic community that pools in information on species.” Appreciating the efforts made by the UK in monitoring bird species, he said that through its systematic annual bird monitoring programme, the country has been able to generate 10 times more effective and efficient data than any other bigger country. The UK’s bird monitoring programme has shown that the decline in the sparrow population in rural and urban areas has been about 50 and 60 per cent respectively.

In the same way as snow leopards are considered indicators of climate and environmental changes at higher altitudes, sparrows are indicators of such changes in the urban ecosystem; and hence can be regarded as the snow leopard of the urban ecosystem.
Khera dwelt on the fact that Delhi has 15,000-20,000 green spaces today, but because of their smaller sizes, these are unable to support larger habitat diversity and provide ecological services.  Inter-connecting of such small patches is needed to reintroduce the lost habitat, she added.

"Though sparrows have not declined below the threshold limit in Delhi, therefore we can still afford to bring them back through proper conservation practices", noted Khera.

Dwelling on statistics, Surya Prakash, scientific officer at the School of Life Sciences, JNU, pointed out that during the past 25 years, the sparrow population has dwindled by almost 50 per cent, with a major decrease seen in Andhra Pradesh where the population declined by 80 per cent. Changing human lifestyles, climate change, microwave pollution, human induced changes in species’ micro-habitat are some of the reasons for this drop in their numbers, added Prakash.

Sensitising citizens for protecting sparrows

Recognising the importance of peoples’ participation in conservation, Sharma highlighted the Citizen Sparrow Project that aims at creating a constituency for sparrows among the citizens in India. A joint initiative by the Bombay Natural History Society and Ministry of Environment and Forests, this project is inviting inputs by citizens on the sightings of sparrows. The project ultimately will help in estimating the exact reason for the reduction in the sparrow population. The program so far has received around 7461 contributions from 4701 people at 6019 locations in India.

The discussion, moderated by Ravi Aggarwal, Director, Toxic Links, also had a film screening. Directed by Nutan Manmohan, the film Beyond the Mirage shows the battle over food and habitat among the small and big birds that throng Delhi. It documents the predicament of smaller birds like sparrows, which are fast loosing this war against their big brethren.

These birds, being an indicator of environmental health, need to be saved before they can be seen only in books or on the internet.