Kalpana Palkhiwala writes: Goraiya, the house-sparrow, the little sweetie in countless poetry, lyrics, songs and folk-songs and paintings, is today facing a crisis of survival. Its been several years now that we miss the familiar “chi-chi-chi” every morning and the lovely sight of Goraiyas dancing around.
Following inspiration from a retired forest officer in Gujarat, a movement is on to save house sparrow. People get artificial nests for sparrow, parrot and squirrels either in terracotta or from waste of corrugated boxes, hang them at their places on trees or passages, plant them in farms, fields and even residential bungalows. And regularly put water and grains.
Universally familiar in appearance, the widespread and once abundant house sparrow has become a mystery bird and is becoming increasingly rare all over the World. Perky and bustling, house sparrows have always been gregarious, mingling with finches in the fields in autumn and winter, especially when stubble is available to them. For years we felt irritated by this permanent resident in our garden taking more than a fair share of food during the winter, but now weeks pass without a single one putting in an appearance. That took me to my school days when we read the well known Hindi writer Mahadevi Verma’s story ‘Goraiya’. That time it felt surprising- neither a king nor a fairy nor a great leader was the subject of a story, but a small Goraiya! Subramanyam Bharti also said , “A bird of freedom…”
A springtime hazard was sparrows’ unexplained liking for destroying flowers, especially yellow primroses and crocuses. Kicking up dust and bathing in new seedbeds was a further irritation. Noisy and gregarious, these cheerful exploiters of human beings’ rubbish and wastefulness have colonized most of the world. Found from the centre of cities, kitchen gardens, vacant places in houses to the farmland of the countryside, sparrows feed and breed near habitation. They are vanishing from the centre of many cities, but are not uncommon in most towns and villages. Sparrows might appear to be opportunists, but they are now struggling to survive everywhere on the earth along with many other once common birds. Their recent decline has earned them a place on the Red List in the Netherlands.
India has seen a massive decline of sparrows in recent years. Once a common- place bird in large parts of Europe, the sparrows’ population has now seen a sharp fall in United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Czech Republic,Belgium, Italy and Finland.
The house sparrow is an intelligent bird that has proven to be adaptable to most situation, i.e. nest sites, food and shelter, so has become the most abundant songbird in the world.Sparrows are very social birds and tend to flock together through most of the year. A flock’s range covers 1.5-2 miles, but it will cover a larger territory if necessary when searching for food. The sparrow’s main diet consists of grain seeds, especially waste grain and live stock feed. If grain is not available, its diet is very broad and adaptable. It also eats weeds and insects, especially during the breeding season. The parasitic nature of the house sparrow is quite evident as they are avid seekers of garbage tossed out by humans. In spring, flowers – especially those with yellow colours- are often eaten; crocuses, primroses and aconites seem to attract the house sparrow most. The birds also hunt butterflies.
House sparrows are generally attracted to buildings for roosting, nesting, and cover. They look for any man-made nook or cranny in which to build their nests. Other sparrow nesting sites are clothes line poles with the end caps open, lofts, garden kitchens, or overhangs on a roof without a soffit. The sparrow makes its home in areas closely associated with human habitation. It is a common resident of agricultural, urban and sub-urban communities. The male house sparrow is highly territorial, aggressively defending the nesting site during breeding season. Species that attempt to nest within the sparrow’s territory are often be evicted; their eggs destroyed and at times incubating females are killed. The nest is a ball of dried vegetation, feathers, strings and papers with an opening on one side. It is a bulky mass also lined with grass, weeds and hair.
The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a member of the old world sparrow family Passeridae. Some consider it to be a relative of the Weaver Finch Family. A number of geographic races have been named, and are differentiated on the basis of size and cheek colour. Cheeks are grey in the west and white in the east. The shade of the colouration, particularly of the chestnut area in the males is also considered. Birds of the western hemisphere are larger than those in the tropical South Asian populations. Some varieties are the passer domesticus in Europe, passerpersicus in Karun River, Khuzistan, passer bactrianus in Turkestan, Afghanistan and passer semiretschieensis which is easily seen in Semiryechensk Mountains in the eastern part of Russian Turkestan. The passer biblicus which is found in Palestine and Syria is paler and the colour of the chestnut area is not deep. The cheek is grey. The passerparkini is abundant in Srinagar, Kashmir in western Himalayas to Nepal. The passer indicus found in India, south of the Himalayas and in Sri Lanka.
In India, it is popularly known as Goraiya in the Hindi belt. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala it is known as Kuruvi. Telugu language has given it a name, Pichhuka, Kannadigas call it Gubbachchi, Gujaratis call it Chakli where as Maharashtrians call it Chimani. It is known as Chiri in Punjab, Chaer in Jammu and Kashmir, Charai Pakhi in West Bengal, and Gharachatia in Orissa. In Urdu language it is called Chirya while Sindhi language has termed it as Jhirki.
This 14 to 16 cm long bird has a wing span of 19-25 cms.It is a small, stocky song bird that weighs 26 to 32 grams. The male sparrow has a grey crown, cheeks and underparts, and is black at the throat, upper breast and between the bill and eyes. The bill in summer is blue–black and the legs are brown. In winter the plumage is dulled by pale edgings, and the bill is yellowish brown. The female has no black coloring on the head or throat, or a grey crown; her upper part is streaked with brown. The juveniles are deeper brown.
The sparrow’s most common call is a short and incessant, slightly metallic ‘cheep, chirrup’. It also has a double call note- ‘phillip’ wherein originated the now obsolete name of ‘phillip sparrow’. While the young are in their nests, the older birds utter a long churr. At least three broods are reared in a season.
The nesting site is varied under eaves, in holes, in masonry or rocks, in ivy or creepers on houses or riverbanks, on sea-cliffs or in bushes in bays and inlets. When built in holes or ivy, the nest is an untidy litter of straw and rubbish, abundantly filled with feathers. Large well- constructed domed nests are often built when the bird nests in trees or shrubs, especially in rural areas.
Five to six eggs, profusely dusted, speckled or blotched with black, brown or ash-grey on a blue-tinted or creamy white ground, and usual types. Eggs are variable in size and shape as well as markings. Eggs are incubated by the female. The sparrow has the shortest incubation period of all the birds: 10 -12 days, and a female can lay 25 eggs each summer. The reproductive success increases with age and this is mainly by changes in timing, with older birds breeding earlier in the season.
Causes of Decline
Various causes for its dramatic decrease in population have been proposed, one of the more surprising being the introduction of unleaded petrol, the combustion of which produces compounds such as methyl nitrite, a compound which is highly toxic for small insects, which form a major part of a young sparrow’s diet. Other theories consider reducing areas of free growing weeds, or reducing the number of badly maintained buildings, which are important nesting opportunities for sparrows. Ornithologists and wildlife experts speculate that the population crash could be linked to a variety of factors like the lack of nesting sites in modern concrete buildings, disappearing kitchen garden, increased use of pesticides in farmlands and the non- availability of food sources. The recent threat is from mobile towers. The emission they sent out is disturbing to the sparrows. Which also effects the insects and the hatching of bird’s eggs.
K.S. Gopi Sunder of the Indian Cranes and Wetlands Working Group says: “Although there is no concrete evidence or study to substantiate the phenomenon, the population of house sparrows has definitely declined over the past few years.” He attributes this to a number of reasons like widespread use of chemical pesticides in farmlands, increased predation by crows and cats while crows grow in number as a result of garbage accumulation in the city.
According to Dr. V S Vijayan of the Coimbatore-based Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, though the avian species can still be spotted over two-thirds of the world’s land surface, “ironically, there has been a rapid decline in the population of these once abundant birds.” Changing lifestyles and architectural evolution have wreaked havoc on the bird habitat and food sources. Modern buildings are devoid of eaves and crannies, and coupled with disappearing home gardens, are playing a part in the disappearing act.
Today I miss the sparrows chirping and hopping from branch to branch in the bushes outside my house and remember Mahadevi Verma’s famous poem Goraiya - in which a sparrow is eating grains from hand and jumping on her shoulders and playing hide and seek. It is as vivid as if it were being played in front of me. I wish that it does not remain confined in the pages of Mahadevi Verma’s story and comes back to us as ever before.