Saturday, March 06, 2010

Disappearing Act

- by Aishwarya Pramod

Up until I was 5 years old, I spent most of my time at my grandparents' place. My mom was a working woman and during the day time my grandmother and grandfather looked after me.

Their house was on the ground floor of a set of apartments, in a small lane behind Roopam cinema (now Cinemax Sion). One of my earliest memories is of a tree, growing near the gate of my grandparents’ building. The strange little flowers on that tree spread a red carpet on the ground. And in and around that tree, there were tons of sparrows. Sparrows hopping around (when moving on the ground, they prefer to hop instead of walk), sparrows scolding angrily, sparrows flitting busily about the whole building.

When I was almost 6, we went to live in Chennai. When I came back to Mumbai seven years later, I saw that the tree was gone and only a few sparrows were in sight.

I wondered where they all had gone. I wondered if it was only from our building that they disappeared, or from all of Mumbai?

The answer, I found out from newspapers, is that the little birds have dropped in population drastically - more than 50 percent- since the time I was last here.

Sparrows are tough city birds, but in Mumbai, they've been subjected to an unholy combination of challenges that has broken their hardy backs.

For one, they have fewer places to nest now. The old, traditional houses had lots of hidey holes and protected crevices for sparrows to make their nests. Box style flats have fewer of these spaces.

Traditional roofed housing in Bandra -
But these old enclaves are disappearing fast. In the background you can see new modern style concrete housing.

A fisherman's old-style home in Worli Fishing Village.
This sort of house has lots of nooks and crannies where sparrows love to build their nests.

Another surprising reason is the introduction of unleaded petrol. When unleaded petrol combusts, it releases compounds that kill insects, which are an important food source for baby sparrows.

Radiation from mobile towers also affects the reproductive and nervous systems of sparrows. Their babies have high mortality rates and many of them are born with serious deformities.

Pigeons, crows and other bigger birds are serious competition.

City folks don't dry grain out in the open as much as they used to, so sparrows can't steal grain from here (another important food source gone).

Surely, the sparrow is disappearing from the city. This is a bird that has characterized not only my childhood, but that of many others in Mumbai. Perhaps the disappearance of the sparrow indicates the passing of an old way of life in Mumbai. Or maybe Mumbai was always rapidly changing, and I just didn't notice it when I was 5 years old.


bellybytes said...

Great observation and very well written

Anonymous said...

Delightful article. Thoughful and interesting. And the drawings are lovely too!

Aishwarya said...

Thank you! :)

The illustrations are from Ranjit Lal's book "Birds from my window", they are by a NID design student called Divya Saxena.

MGM said...

Congrats Aishu! You set me thinking. Always wondered where in the hell have these sparrows disappeared.Extremely well thought, well articulated. Way to go! Keep it coming! God Bless!

Vandita said...

Well written Aishu! I remember during my childhood (and that was some eons ago!) waking up in our Delhi house with a chirping of sparrows. Then with my grandmother religiously spreading small morsels of a chapati everyday in our verandah ...and in no time, getting surrounded by a whole lot of them, hopping around, fighting, feeding and taking some food for their little ones...just the memory brings a smile to my face.

BabuS said...

Good one Aishwariya....Cheers...

Anju said...

Nicely written, Aishu. I remember waking up to the chatter of sparrows outside my window. I used to get annoyed by it actually. Especially during summer vacations, when i didn't want to be woken up early. After coming to the US i really miss that sound. You can hardly hear birds here.

Devendra Pore said...

It is great job !
It is very important to be sensitive towards other aspects of life. keep doing it !

Aishwarya said...


Anonymous said...

Great write up. Kudos for championing the cause of this unsung bird. In our efforts to measure the health of our ecosystems by apex predators, we have lost focus on base indicators like the House Sparrow. Due to the efforts of people like you, March 20 is being celebrated as World House Sparrow Day. Here's the contact of a BNHS scientist who is passionate about these creatures who really bring out the meaning of - conspicuous by absence. Mohemmad Dilawar (Email: Website:
Cheep Cheep

Haddock said...

Oh yes the common sparrow is not common anymore.
Some blame it on the pollution.
And if the pollution can get these small birds so easily, how much longer before we also disappear from the face of this earth.

Unknown said...

Very nice article! Congratulations and keep the words flowing!


Unknown said...

You have a point about the competition that sparrows face. I kept a bowl of water on the patio with the thought that sparrows could drink and bathe in it, but a crow toppled it and drank a little, a pigeon fluffed around it for a bit, 6 mynas fought around the puddle but no sparrows appeared though they came to our window chirping angrily about the interference. Guess that's what they can rightfully do, considering their size. Next time, I'll put a heavier bowl.

Anonymous said...

Hi Aishu,

I am overwhelmed by your concern about the sparrows. Wonderfully written article. Keep them coming. I have always loved the sparrows just like you. I even have a nest in my garage that the birds come back every spring and lay eggs.That's another reason I look forward to Spring.


Aishwarya said...

Thanks Anonymous for the information about Mohd Dilawar. While reseasrching this article I came across his name several times.

anbohs, I know you wanted sparrows but mynahs are soo cute :)

Sudar, thats so nice about them laying eggs in your garage. Are Toronto sparrows much different from ours in Mumbai?

Ravi Ramakantan said...

Sorry a very long comment.
I have pondered about this a lot myself, Aishwarya and I have some observations from my childhood and some thoughts on where and why the sparrows have gone.
For one thing, they were long gone before the "cell phone towers" era. So, that probably has very little to do with the sparrows disappearing. As far as I can recall, sparrows always built nests inside people houses.. Seldom out door in trees. And what was their most common location? Ask your grandmom and she will tell you that invariably it used to be the broad-hemispherical cup like device covering the hook on the ceiling from which the ceiling fans were suspended. That broad 6 inch or so diameter cup provided a nice nesting place. Such broad cups - as well the old Crompton fans - that had them are seldom to be seen these days. Sure, this looks a little far-fetched theory, till about two weeks ago, I went to visit my friend in Matunga (near the SIES School) and saw this vintage fan at his home with the "broad cup" at top of the rod from which the ceiling fan was suspended. And I told him my story of Sparrows nests within them and you know what he said "They come in these days, but rarely, but we make sure that they do not build nests there"I sort of thought that this was a reasonably good confirmatory test for the hypotheses. The other one is the "Grilling of Windows" This is just a wild guess off the top of my head and I think, some the modern "Boxed grills", prevent sparrows from coming in. In any case, the last I saw a sparrow's nest was a couple of years ago, in my building on the ground f floor in one of the telephone connection boxes that was ajar. I believe the MTNL guys must have triumphantly cleaned out the "mess".
And this last point. At least in and around the KEM hospital campus.. the disappearing sparrows over the years have been 'replaced' by a really massive population of squirrels!!.. I know it is a tenuous connection but just an observation all the same.
Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Aishwarya said...

RR, thank you for your comment. I don't really have much first hand experience with the sparrows, except the one I have written about, that is them disappearing from the building.

Interesting theory about the new fan models!!! Never thought of that.

anish said...

There is a fantastic PhD thesis by a person from England named Kate Vincent. It is a detailed analysis of the reasons why sparrows are declining from cities in England.

My guess was that they have less number of suitable nesting places because of more 'modern' and closed houses because of which they have to build nests in risky spots where their kids are eaten up by crows as soon as they step out to fly for the first time.

Kate's study actually proves that the decline in their population is proportional to the amount of concrete used in buildings

Shreyans Mehta said...

Very well written... Reminds me of my childhood days when the chirping of sparrows was not all that rare...

Shafi said...

Very good post. I like it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for writing this, it was unbelieveably informative and told me a ton.

vikramponappa said...

Hello Aishwarya Pramod,
Came across your article yesterday,Well written and researched article.
Do you think if this article were to be sent to the right person at BNHS-India,
would action be taken?
Maybe by asking residents to actually form small nesting places for the birds,
or actually creating a bird feeding program... just thoughts..
RR & Anish have given more insight ...this may just spearhead something to bringing back this l