My earliest memory of a bird – any bird – is that of a couple of house sparrows, which played a very comforting role in my five-year-old life. My grandmother’s home, which we visited annually, was like a taxidermist’s parlour. A number of our ancestors were, I am sorry to say, keen shikaris, and though I did not mind the antler heads, I absolutely refused to enter the drawing room where a large tiger was spread-eagled across the wall. His snarling face and his mouth, studded with pointed fangs, rested on a wooden bracket. And it became the subject of nightmares, until a pair of cheerful sparrows decided to nest inside that gaping mouth. Dida allowed the birds to make a home only to ensure my fears vanished. They were the friendliest of birds and would accept breadcrumbs from my hand, darting down from their home in the jaws of the tiger.

So, it is with sadness that I now notice the dwindling numbers of sparrows in Delhi and Kolkata, the two cities I am most familiar with. Research shows that the bird (Passer Domesticus) – once the most common avian visitor to every garden – has declined in alarming numbers the world over, especially in urban areas and certain rural regions where pesticide use is high.

Photo credit: Rakesh Khatri

Dying species

Saving sparrows has become a matter of urgency as the birds have been recognised as an indicator of environmental health and urban biodiversity. World Sparrow Day is marked on March 20 and a number of measures to increase their numbers are encouraged on this day.

Speaking of policy, the single most cruel decision to cull the creatures was introduced by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1958 in China, during his Four Pests Campaign. The entire populace was encouraged to kill rodents, flies, mosquitoes and, very wrongly, sparrows. It was believed that sparrows depleted fields of grain but the fact was that by 1960, the large-scale extermination of the birds was correlated to a decline in grain as it was proven that sparrows played an important role in pest control, because their young fed on small insects that infested paddy fields. Recognising the folly of his decision, Mao was induced to replace sparrows with bed-bugs, but the damage was done.

A poster for the Four Pests Campaign.

But why are sparrows declining in countries which are more bird-friendly? There are a number of reasons, mostly linked to loss of habitat. Town houses built in India by older generations had Mangalore tiles, eaves and projecting balconies. These architectural details with crevices and overhangs made it easy for the birds to nest. There were small gardens filled with shrubs, and boundary walls were often green hedges – all very sparrow-friendly, besides being good for the environment. Today, an increasing number of people live in apartments in sleek gleaming towers with metres of plate glass, boundary walls are solid with concrete and gardens are vanishing. Even parks have concrete walkways and Phoenix palms instead of shade-giving trees.

It would be ideal if town planners would plant shady trees and cover boundary walls with creepers in public parks. The new park in Delhi at Sunder Nursery and the Agri- Horticultural Park at Alipur, Kolkata, are good role models. Scientists have also correlated the decrease in birds to radiation from mobile towers as their reproductive capacities are adversely affected by the electromagnetic radiation. They suggest cities should have wooded mobile-tower-free areas for the birds to survive in. In addition, birds are also threatened by global warming and noise pollution.

Gardens for all

Gardens are not only about colourful flowers or organic vegetables – they are traditionally supposed to appeal to other senses. Fragrance is very important, but so is the soothing sound of splashing fountains and early morning birdsong. The twittering song of the sparrow is sweet and must be allowed to survive. It should not vanish into dim memory like the glow of the firefly.

Photo credit: Rakesh Khatri

I attended a workshop recently on how to make sparrow nesting stations for the small town garden, balcony or rooftop terrace garden. This, along with a bird seed dispenser for smaller birds – which is available online and is relatively inexpensive – can help the gregarious sparrow feel more welcome. It is a great project for children during the summer holidays, and was conducted by the ECO-Roots Foundation, a conservation body which has made and distributed around 30,000 sparrow nests in Delhi-National Capital Region alone. The sparrow is, after all, the state bird of Delhi.

Materials required to build a nest

4 strips of split bamboo
Jute cloth cut from a gunny bag
Coconut husk fibre
A spool of thread
A pair of scissors

Bend the strips of bamboo into circles and tie with string. Interlock three circles vertically and tie to form a sphere. Tie the last bamboo strip horizontally around the central diameter to strengthen the sphere. Secure all cross joints with the string firmly in order that the sphere retains shape.

Bend the wire into a small hole for the bird to enter the nest and secure in an upper quadrant. Cover the sphere with jute cloth and cut away the area around the entrance hole with the scissors. Cover the jute ball with coconut fibre and secure with string.

The nest is ready and can be hung at between 8 and 10 feet. Do hang the seed dispenser nearby and set out an earthenware bowl with drinking water. If you do not have the time for a DIY effort, small birdhouses are available online and birds love them. Hopefully the sparrows and other birds such as bulbuls should come calling, especially if there are no mobile towers in the vicinity.