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One sparrow makes a spring

 

Two years ago, entrepreneur Ravindra Pal Sood, a resident of Jawahar Nagar in Jaipur, noticed that the incessant chirping of sparrows in his neighbourhood had lessened considerably. He realised that something was amiss, and soon found that the tiny, round, brown bird, once ubiquitous, was fast disappearing.

House sparrows, taxonomically classified as Passer domesticus, are intimately associated with human habitation. They nest in man-made structures such as eaves or walls of buildings and behind electric meters. We all grew up with these gregarious birds, their cheerful cherr…cherr…cherr… punctuating our days, as they thrived on the rubbish that humans generated. But the last few decades have seen a massive decline in their population, as the birds cannot cope with the changing urban architecture, glass walls and steel surfaces, scarce water sources, and disappearing worms and bugs.

Sood approached a group of conservationists associated with the Indian Birding Fair. They provided him with a sparrow nest box and feed box, which he fixed on an outside wall. As he saw the birds taking to the boxes eagerly, in the next two years, Sood brought many more boxes. The birds came in dozens, making the boxes their home and breeding. Soon, his garden and slowly the entire neighbourhood had become full of house sparrows.

The nesting box is not new. It’s an idea that conservationists have been using for some years now. And it’s amazing how just a small wooden box and feeder can encourage a species to start again. The Birding Fair activists have so far supplied about 1,200 sparrow nest boxes in Jaipur. And a recent citizens’ review found that the drive had helped add a significant 8,000 sparrows to the environment. The boxes allow two sparrows to mate inside undisturbed, and when the eggs are hatched, the parents can go looking for feed while their eggs stay safe from crows and other predators. Similar efforts have been undertaken in other cities as well. The boxes are also good for other birds that nest in holes, like owls, myna and parakeets.

In fact, Rajasthani folk singer Vandana Singh talks of how she installed a bright purple box for sparrows but ended up with a myna instead, for whom she had to enlarge the opening. Now, she plans to get a second box in brown for the sparrows.

The house sparrow figures in the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List. The British Trust for Ornithology is at present running a house sparrow appeal to raise funds to carry out research and monitoring of the species to better understand the pattern of decline.

According to noted environmentalist, and the soul behind the Indian Birding Fair programme, Harsh Vardhan, house sparrow numbers have more than halved in the last 25 years across India. As green spaces in cities give way to concrete constructions and pesticides cause pollution, the sparrow has found it hard to survive.

The small-scale industrialist, Sajal Jugran, who has designed these boxes in Jaipur, says the extinction of house sparrows could lead to a “takeover by insects”. Rajasthan’s Chief Wildlife Warden G.V. Reddy seconds this and says, “We must strive to protect our associate species to ensure our own survival.”

The nest boxes are typically distributed during the breeding season that occurs twice a year — from June till August and from February to March-April. Each clutch can yield three to five chicks.

Importantly for the programme’s success in the Pink City, the drive has drawn the attention of real estate builders, who are gradually beginning to understand that sparrows and humans need to co-exist, and are redesigning the way homes are built by incorporating more trees and gardens and less glass and chrome.

With this phase proving a big success in Jaipur, both Vardhan and Jugran affirm that it will now be easier for conservationists to start the second phase with redesigned nest boxes, and launch a fresh drive at the 20th Indian Birding Fair in February 2017.

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