World Sparrow Day 2023: How you can help make your Mumbai home, housing colony suitable for your feathered friend

18 March,2023 01:27 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nascimento Pinto

Sparrows are omnipresent but most often than not we may not stop to appreciate them like we would other colourful species of birds. Mid-day Online spoke to city birders to understand why we should celebrate them and how housing colonies are suitable for them

Every year, World Sparrow Day is celebrated on March 20 to raise awareness about the birds and their conservation. Image for representational purpose only. Photo Courtesy: iStock

Srikanth Sarathy, who grew up in the heart of Mumbai in Dadar, has fond memories of being surrounded by sparrows during his childhood because they were very hard to miss. "Sparrows were ubiquitous when I was growing up because we used to see many of them around the house. We had a little courtyard, so we used to put grains for them. So, I don*t remember not seeing sparrows," he reminisces. It was no different for Mumbai-based wildlife biologist Anand Pendharkar, whose mother used to narrate stories of how he grew up around sparrows when they came into the house, after grains at home were cleaned. "I used to watch them and play with them, and their sound is so soothing," he shares.

Sarathy, who has been a birder for the last 10 years and a wildlife enthusiast for much longer, moved out of Dadar to Sewri years ago, is among the lucky few who still manage to see them. "They are on the lawns and different parts of the colony and come every day and even breed there," he says happily. However, this was after a brief lull of seven-eight years, which the 50-year-old believes could be due to the lack of tree cover in the places he frequented; it was different than how it used to be in Dadar, which he hopes sees more of them now.

Pravin Subramanian has been a birder for 22 years in Mumbai and suggests going to places in Goregaon East, Vile Parle East and Santacruz West among other suburbs to spot sparrows. Photo Courtesy: Pravin Subramanian

In fact, the lack of green cover is also one reason that Pravin Subramanian, a city birder, cannot see as many sparrows as they could be seen before. Subramanian, who has been birding in Mumbai for about 22 years now, says while they may not be easily visible, they are certainly present in many pockets in the city. However, he fears that the reducing air quality and rapid rate of construction is harming wildlife in the city and many different species including sparrows could suffer.

Are they threatened?
Every year, World Sparrow Day is celebrated on March 20 to raise awareness about the house sparrow, protect and conserve them. At the same time, it is also a day to celebrate the bird that may be small and out of the line of vision but still manages to capture the attention of most people. Interestingly, experts say the fact that people complain about not being able to see sparrows doesn*t mean that their population is reducing. Neither the fact that mobile towers nor radiation is responsible has been proven. So, if they are present, it simply means they may have found other nooks and crannies, their favourite spots to nest, that aren*t really populated entirely by apartments, and that shows their adaptability. All of this while facing stiff competition from pigeons and crows in every neighbourhood.

Bengaluru-based scientist Ashwin Viswanathan, who is associated with Bird Count India, which documents birds, has been researching and studying birds in India over the years. According to the 35-year-old*s observations through a recent data by eBird, the possibility of coming across a sparrow hasn*t declined in the last 25 years as their population is stable and not threatened. "In the additional study we did after the data we looked at, we found that sparrows in the cities declined greatly by almost 40-50 per cent, however in India, they are stable."

However, he points out that culturally people associate sparrows with their childhood, and so even though they are not a conservation concern, he says there certainly needs to be efforts made to bring them back into people*s lives in the cities and that can be done through food and shelter. "Sparrows have found it particularly hard because there simply isn*t enough food available. Earlier there were markets and grain waste available openly and this would subsidise the existence of sparrows," adds Viswanathan, who has been a birder for 30 years.

Nesting sparrows in housing colonies
On the other hand, Subramanian and Sarathy*s observations of lack of green cover leading to the decline in visibility of sparrows interestingly isn*t wrong. Pendharkar, who has been a birder for over 30 years like Viswanathan, says sparrows have always been hole nesters and when in the wilderness they nest in the holes of old broken branches of the tree. "Since there is a lot of mud around, there was a lot of places to do their courtship dance before their bonding happens, and they require mud for that, which is one of the major things missing now. So, it is not the radiation but more about the lack of mud and the concretisation of areas in the colonies that make it difficult for their courtship mud dance to happen," he explains. Being induced ovulators, Pendharkar explains that it is only when the courtship mud dance happens that the females ovulate and release their eggs and the copulation is possible, much of which is not possible in urban cities packed with apartments.

So, how can housing colonies, who want to see sparrows, help? "One of the easiest ways is to break their cement concrete and make mud patches, even if it is a 1mx1m patch. Since all the terraces are lying vacant, keep mud in patches on them, grow plants on them and cover them with climbers, have grasses like bajra and wheat growing so that they can feed, and set up bird boxes or bamboo clumps," he adds. The fact that March - April and August - September is when they nest, this is the ideal time to set it up. While cat lovers may not be happy, 51-year-old Pendharkar, who is also the CEO of SPROUTS, a city-based environmental consulting and eco-tourism company, and an educator, who also hosts nature trails, says the feline population needs to be controlled because they are the biggest predators of birds and are aggressive hunters. The fact that sparrows are omnivores is an advantage for bird lovers because they can eat anything apart from grains including fruits and insects, so every kind of fruit waste we don*t eat at home can be kept for them in a plate. At the same time, keeping water is equally important, so that they can visit and drink from the bowls, which should be wide and shallow.

Even as it is becoming more difficult to spot sparrows, there are quite a few places where people can see them in Mumbai. Pendharkar shares, "The hotspots for sparrows are usually old housing colonies like Sundar Nagar in Goregaon, areas in Andheri and Chembur. They can be found in places that do not have towers but old colonies with three or four floors, or which have gardens, or where people have plants at the window."

Subramanian, who finds joy in going birding alone, adds, "Head out to neighbourhoods that haven*t seen redevelopment since the 1980s-90s like Goregaon East, Vile Parle East, Santacruz West and wherever there are tall trees in profusion, you will find them. You may also find sparrows in Kalbadevi and Bhuleshwar which would be surprising but that is because the apartments are in clusters like old tenements, with a lot of opportunity for feeding."

Pravin Subramanian*s tips to start bird watching for beginners
1. Invest in binoculars
2. Read up guidebooks on bird watching: ‘Birds of Mumbai* by Sunjoy Monga is one of them
3. Don*t go to forests to look for birds, head to your neighbourhood parks and beaches in the mornings

Also Read: Kartiki Gonsalves, Guneet Monga*s *The Elephant Whisperers* is a great achievement for women filmmakers: World Elephant Day founder

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