RAGOO RAO writes: My ajji‘s (grandmother) folk stories would all begin the same way on our jaguli (patio): “Ondu ooralli, ondu Gubakka mattu ondu Kagakka vaasa maadtittante (A sparrow and a crow lived in a city).”
For us, kids, these Kagakka-Gubakka stories were fun. Gubakka was the naive do-gooder; Kagakka the conniving villain. Many a story was woven around these ubiquitous birds that helped convey morals and cultural nuances.
As the story went on, we would look out for an appearance by our main protagonist—Gubakka.
When their ilk paid a visit, we would ensure we threw out some nucchu (grain leftovers). The story-telling continued while the sparrows hopped around the yard, chirping.
Now, these birds that were a commonplace in my hometown of Mysore, is no longer so common.
Kagakka and Gubakka are going the way of the dodo as far as urban areas are concerned.
The house sparrow has been a confirmed hanger-on to man ever since humans started cultivating. Till not so long ago, sparrows were common all over the country whether it was a bustling metropolis or a small hamlet. Not only were they welcome in houses in parts of south India, it was considered a good omen if the sparrow built a nest inside the house.
It was not uncommon to find these nests under the rafters, behind an old picture frame, an electric meter box, an attic or a niche in the wall.
People would let these birds thrive and shoo away predatory cats or crows from these nests. A lot of these birds roamed inside houses—especially the solitary males and the juveniles. Such is the bond between man and the sparrow that sparrows came to be classified as a domestic species—Passer domesticus.
Till two decades ago, many trees with close foliage and small branches in our area would be filled with flocks of birds. These birds, mainly sparrows, created a din with their constant chirping and nesting preparations. Having toiled through the day, one would find these birds perched in a neat line on power lines on cooler evenings.
Once dark, they would settle down peacefully until the next dawn when the first rays of sunlight would get them going again. Though roosters are credited with heralding the morning, it’s the chirping of sparrows that ushered in many of ours.
By 1990, this everyday feature of the sparrows roosting in our trees and their all-too-familiar chirping started getting less and less frequent. The nests inside the houses were fading away and the birds, which would fill our gardens for foraging on insects, were going missing.
By 1992, there were hardly any in our area.
This sea-change in a five-year period puzzled me. Many wondered where the sparrows went. Some had their own diagnosis of the problem. Their guesses ranged from the obvious to the outlandish.
Some faulted the loss of food; some the sound waves of the mobile phone; others, the radiation from outer space.
As a plantation consultant and a wildlife photographer, I spend quite a bit of time in the farms, fields and forests. Add to that I pass through a lot of villages, both big and small en route to my destinations.
Curiously, I noticed sparrows in a lot of villages.
These birds merrily foraged and thrived unaffected by the fate of their urban cousins. This was not an isolated incident and I observed this for a good period of time since the birds became rarer in 1992. I started compiling notes to contrast the urban-rural demographic divide in the sparrow population.
In comparing the two regions, the reasons for the dwindling number of sparrows in urban areas and their steady numbers in the non-urban demographic got more and more obvious by the day.
First: Sparrows were dependent on the leftover grains thrown to them after people cleaned their grains. I distinctly remember a flock of sparrows at my mother’s feet while she cleaned the rice on our patio. This practice has ceased in urban areas, thanks to everyone buying pre-cleaned grains from the super stores. However, in rural Karnataka, this practice still thrives; not just the rural areas, but in “undeveloped” localities inside cities where the less privileged do the cleaning of grains themselves, sparrows still make their appearances. This clearly highlights the shortage of food impacting the dwindling numbers.
Second: Sparrows typically built nests in tiled houses—under the rafters and niches in the gables. As a matter of fact, in some old houses, intentional holes were made near the roofing to accommodate sparrow nests. Now the urban scene has changed. There are no tiled houses with rafters; we just have concrete structures with absolutely no place for the sparrows to build nests. Nonetheless in rural and “undeveloped” areas, there still are tiled houses with bamboo rafters, intentionally made niches in walls for nesting sparrows. This is the same demographic where the sparrows are still thriving. This clearly indicates that the sparrows were deprived of nesting places adding to their decline in the urban areas while they still prosper in the rural/rural like demographic.
Third: House sparrows are omnivorous, they live mainly on grains, but they also relish insects. They bring up the young exclusively on insects. Until recent times, home gardens did not use chemical insecticides in their gardens. The lawns raised in big compounds were also the native variety of grass, which was a little tall swayed in the wind and needed constant mowing. This native grass was hardy and did not need chemical pampering except a good spray of water. These lawns harboured a wealth of insect life—most harmless to humans, but a wealth of sustenance to our winged friends. Sparrows busily foraged for insect larvae in these lawns for feeding their young. Not anymore.
Now in urban areas, the scene has changed, and changed for the worse as far as our feathered friends are concerned. Many gardens are liberally sprayed with insecticides and fungicides. The native lawn grass has been replaced by the short non-moving Mexican grass, which needs a lot of support with fertilizers and protectant sprays. Thanks to these and the fact that they are not native, these new lawns do not support much insect life in them. As a contrast to this urban landscape, the organic and green methods in villages not just help humans, it helps fellow inhabitatants as well. In the villages and “undeveloped” localities, pesticides are not used for domestic use. Whatever little kitchen gardening they practice uses farmyard manure, encouraging insect life, which ultimately the sparrows feed the young with.
In conclusion, it is quite apparent that the rapid urbanization has led to ‘Loss of foraging sites‘, ‘Loss of nesting sites‘, ‘Loss of insect population to bring up a brood‘, ‘Loss of roosting shrubs‘.
Apart from these major factors, there could well be many other contributing factors to the declining sparrow numbers in cities. High automobile pollution with a lot of lead has known to cause the eggs of birds in some countries to be too thin and unsustainable; the same could be afflicting our sparrows. Higher noise pollution might have caused a disturbance they could not cope with.
A total loss of habitat in urban areas has spelt the doom for these beautiful creatures. The sole encouraging thing though is, one can still find these much loved birds in rural hamlets and pockets of urban areas, thanks to a congenial atmosphere still prevailing there.
Now, we hear the same about the dwindling numbers of the villain of our Kagakka-Gubakka duo: the crow.
I sure hope we do not have to start a story to our grandkids with, “Ondanondu kaaladalli ondu Kagakka mattu ondu Gubakka anno pakshigalu ittante (Once upon time there lived 2 birds…).”
If that happens, we know who the villain of that tale will be: you and me.
Photograph: VT Peacenik via Flicker
Visit the author: http://www.ragoorao.com
Also read: Save the vanishing sparrows