Recently, as I was heading back to Indian Institute of Science, I happened to pass through Sanjay Nagar; specifically, through Geddalahalli bus stop. I heard a characteristic call amidst the bustling noise of all the automobiles and other activity. I was pleasantly surprised to notice a bunch of House Sparrows chattering and perching on a transformer and then flying over to a tree branch, before hopping on the name-board of a shop! We now have one more location / pocket where we have House Sparrows in Bengaluru. This indeed was a pleasant surprise, as there are concerns about the occurrences of this bird.

House Sparrows, which were once thought of to be ubiquitous, are no longer seen everywhere and are now found only in a few pockets. So, where have all the sparrows gone? This is a question that is bothering some of us, and we are trying to ascertain the issue. Given that we haven’t observed them enough, it now requires some renewed focus in monitoring these species to understand them better.

01A female House Sparrow

The bird’s scientific name (Passer domesticus) and common name (House Sparrow) refer to its association with humans. The Latin word passer, like the English word “sparrow”, is a term for small active birds, coming from a root word referring to speed. The Latin word domesticus means “belonging to the house”. The common name is a reference to its association with humans. House Sparrows are perhaps the first wild birds to be associated closely with human beings without being domesticated. Sparrows have been epitomised by Salim Ali, the father of Indian ornithology, in his famous auto-biography titled, ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’, following an incident involving a different species of sparrows, the Yellow-throated Sparrow or Chestnut-shouldered Petronia. This is, though, in no way directly related to the species in question, the House Sparrow.

House Sparrows have influenced human societies by at least having a few settlements named after them. For instance, my home-town and place of residence is named Gubbi. Gubbi, in Kannada, refers to the House Sparrow. There are quite a few villages with the same name – one each in Hassan and Davanagere districts. Besides this, another village, Dodda Gubbi, is also found in North Bengaluru. In Baroda, there is a round-about (intersection) that is named after sparrows, as Chakali Circle.

However, there have been instances in history when sparrows have not been welcome. In China, at several points of time, sparrows were considered pests, and have been declared as enemies of farmers due to their dependency on grains in farmlands and largely agrarian rural countrysides. The most infamous one is the ‘Great Sparrow Campaign’ or ‘Kill a Sparrow Campaign’, officially known as the ‘Four Pests Campaign’. This was one of the first actions taken in the ‘Great Leap Forward’ from 1958 to 1962 in China, by Mao Zedong. The four pests to be eliminated were rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows (the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and not the House Sparrow). The extermination of the last upset the ecological balance, and enabled crop-eating insects to proliferate.

It is apparent that the occurrence of these species has been impacted by humans.

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Are House Sparrows declining?

Towns and cities have been around for over 2,000 years now. Yet, in the recent past, there have been concerns over the distribution and population of sparrows in India and elsewhere. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in England, House Sparrow numbers were not monitored adequately before the mid-1970s. Since then, numbers in rural England have nearly halved while numbers in towns and cities have declined by 60%. Because of these large population declines, the House Sparrow is now red-listed as a species of high conservation concern by the RSPB in 2012. Oddly, despite widespread concerns on the decline in the population of House Sparrows, the conservation status of this species is listed as Least Concern on the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) Red List.

Several studies and assessments in the recent past have been undertaken, mostly in north-western Europe and a few in India, to ascertain the cause of this decline. Laet and Summers-Smith (2007) plotted the Population Index for the bird in Great Britain from 1970 to 2002 based on the Common Bird Census (CBC) run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) that gives an indication of the abundance of the bird. They noted that the numbers did increase until the late 1970s, but then, without warning, numbers began to decrease and, by 1997, had fallen by about 60%.

A first-of-its-kind, citizen science based initiative was launched in India in 2012, called ‘Citizen Sparrow’. It is an ongoing citizen science project in which members of the public are encouraged to contribute information on the presence and absence of the House Sparrow. It is organized by Bombay Natural History Society and Ministry of Environment and Forests (India) in partnership with the National Centre for Biological Sciences and Nature Conservation Foundation. The effort resulted in gathering 11,170 observations from 5939 persons at 8802 locations across India (Citizen Sparrow, 2015: http://www.citizensparrow.in). Based on this, they have presented a summary of results:

“Based on over 10,000 reports from across the country and from different years, some patterns are clear. Sparrow occurrence is reported to be lower at present than in the past, and this is consistent across the country. Sparrow occurrence is lower in cities compared with towns and villages, and this is again consistent in different parts of the country. Still, there is large variation in the occurrence of sparrows from city to city. For example, sparrows are reported to be widespread in Mumbai and Coimbatore, but are missing in most localities in Bangalore and Chennai, while Delhi is intermediate.”

[From: http://www.citizensparrow.in/index.php?r=site/page&view=reports]

However, commenting about the decline in population of House Sparrows in India is difficult primarily due to the non-availability of any historical data / counts about this species, though there have been ‘observations’ about their apparent decline from many quarters, including hearsay.

Where are they in Bengaluru?

 With no apparent answer to the decline of House Sparrows, the first task is to perhaps gather data on their current distribution. In 2007, a shared Google Maps project on ‘Sparrows in Bangalore’ was initiated, which gathered data from personal field observations and records posted in a birdwatchers’ mailing list, ‘BNGbirds’. The effort resulted in about 40 locations where Sparrows were still found, despite notions amongst residents in Bengaluru that the House Sparrow was not found in their locality, or was even extinct! Continuing the efforts, the map is updated periodically. A revised map of Sparrows in Bengaluru has been prepared, including the location data from the earlier map. The map is available online here: http://tiles.mapbox.com/gubbilabs/map/map-yxvaeqx7

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 A screenshot of the map

Speculating about the distribution of House Sparrows in Bengaluru

From the distribution map of House Sparrows, several interesting facts emerge. Some locations like KR Market, Tilak Nagar, Swimming Pool Extension, or Sriramapura, where they are found, are also localities that have livestock, cowsheds or vegetable markets in the neighbourhood. Very evidently, the ‘absence’ of House Sparrows is noted in some localities that are apparently ‘well-planned’ (or at least geometrically well-laid, like several blocks in Jayanagar, parts of Malleshwaram, Indiranagar, etc.). Furthermore, a preliminary mapping of the locations suggests that House Sparrows are mostly found in and around neighbourhoods of dense and low-income housing (Mohan Kumar Nagar, Sudhamanagar, etc.) and urban villages (Kodigenahalli, Amruthahalli, Varthur, etc.), rather than localities with middle or high-income housing.

04A Sparrow in a market in the city.

Some exceptions do however occur. This seems to suggest that perhaps there is a relation to the availability of nesting locations (or type of houses) and food (something also influenced by the lifestyles of residents). A thorough analysis should throw more light on this. Perhaps, it is the housing typologies that could affect the House Sparrow population. With an increase in RCC-roof buildings and a shift from tiles, there are hardly any crevices or spaces for the House Sparrows to nest. It is thus speculated that some of the above or all of the above factors in combination, have been at play in restricting the distribution of House Sparrows to select pockets of Bengaluru.

05A Sparrow in its nest.

Another popular perception is that of radiation from mobile towers affecting House Sparrows. From the available published literature, there is possibly only one study that suggests possible effects of long-term exposure to low-intensity electromagnetic radiation from mobile phone (GSM) base stations on the number of House Sparrows during the breeding season. This has been carried out by Everaert and Bauwens (2007) in six residential districts of Belgium. Although there have been speculations on this front, conclusive studies are required to ascertain the effects of electromagnetic radiation. At the outset, if there were any radiation effects, this would have affected other taxa too and it is very unlikely that this would single out House Sparrows alone.

What next?

The concern about House Sparrows has been on the rise mostly in urban areas, while the causes for their declines in and around human settlements are still undetermined. Going forward, dedicated studies to ascertain the selective presence and absence of House Sparrows in urban environments of Bengaluru need to be carried out. With limited historical data and observations, there are limitations to interpreting what is currently going on in the urban environment of Bengaluru.

Given that House Sparrows are perhaps the first wild birds to be closely associated with human settlements, their declining populations may have a lot to convey about the quality of our urban environment – something that we need to know. We are only speculating on the possible decline, although inconclusive at this point of time. Some recent initiatives like Citizen Sparrow can perhaps throw more conclusive light on the distribution of House Sparrows in the sub-continent. You can contribute your observations by posting them on the ‘BNGbirds’ mailing list or on the Citizen Sparrow portal or even by leaving a comment at the end of this article. With this, hopefully we will know where all the sparrows have gone!

As I wonder and head back to Gubbi, passing through the pedestrian underpass at the Yeshwanthpur Railway Station, I see House Sparrows adoring this passage, chirping and reassuring us that they are very much around!

06Sparrows at Yeshwanthpur Railway Station.