When I was a schoolgirl confined to a room with chicken pox, my mother found a simple way to keep me entertained - she left some food grain on the window sill every morning. The result was often the chirpy company of a host of sparrows throughout the day. The sparrow family in our neighbourhood thrived for a number of years. But slowly that began to change as the sparrows abandoned the cities; for a while there were fewer of them to lay out food for, and eventually, none at all. The next generation of urban youth will probably never see a live sparrow unless they go looking for the bird in rural areas.

This disappearance of the common house sparrow from the urban areas is not something new, nor is it restricted by political boundaries. But responses to this disappearance have been quite muted in India, unlike elsewhere. A few years ago, it rang quite some alarm bells in Europe when the population of sparrows fell drastically - by up to 85 per cent - in London. On the other hand, in India, the phenomenon has hardly ruffled a feather, apart from concerns raised in the scientific community and among naturalists.

"The disappearance of sparrows in India has been widely reported. But one thing missing is reliable information on sparrow populations," says wildlife scientist Dr Shankar Raman based at Valparai, a town on Tamilnadu's border with Kerala. "No one is actually counting and keeping a record of the sparrows. There is no scientific monitoring," he says. Indeed, Dr Raman adds, this is true in the case of most land birds in India.

Aasheesh Pittie, editor of the journal Indian Birds in Hyderabad, cites many reasons why there is no documentation of sparrow populations. "The foremost might be our obsession with the big and the beautiful, many of which are now also rare. Also, the fact is that sparrows were so common in urban areas that we took it for granted that they would remain so always. There is hardly any solid documentation of populations of any of the commoner bird species in India," he says.

"The major institutes in the field, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) have not done any work to document common avian populations. Where they have, like the Salim Ali Bird Count of the BNHS, it has not been done with enough seriousness and continuity to yield worthwhile results. The government either does not have the wherewithal, or is simply not bothered," Pittie says.

Bangalore-based ornithologist M B Krishna is sharper in his criticism of the lack of monitoring in India. In Europe, he says, there is a strong and systematic programme to keep track of environmental changes, which is indeed vital. Not so in India. Dr Raman agrees, but points out that monitoring isn't always enough. "In the UK, there is a very good programme to monitor bird population. But it failed to record the population of the house sparrow. It was so widespread and common that no one felt the need," he explains.

But why did the populations fall?

Dr. Raman sheds some light. "[there was] one person who was a keen observer. He had recorded a census of sparrows for well over a decade," Dr Raman says. "He looked at various co-relates and saw that the population seemed to have fallen when unleaded petrol was introduced in UK."

The disappearance of sparrows in India has been widely reported. But one thing missing is reliable information on sparrow populations. No one is actually counting and keeping a record of the sparrows.
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Denis Summers-Smith's (recognised as a world expert on sparrows) theory was that the unleaded fuel, believed to be eco-friendly, had harmful byproducts. The fuel uses Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) as an anti-knocking agent. Along with byproducts of combustion, this kills small insects. The insecticidal nature of the byproducts makes the food for those birds feeding on insects scarce. Though adult sparrows can survive without insects in their diet, they need them to feed their young. Dr Krishna points out that with fewer insects to feed on, the infant mortality rates of sparrow went up.

Unleaded petrol is not the only culprit. As Dr Krishna points out, in nature there can be multiple causes to a problem. The change in lifestyle of human beings is a significant factor, potentially. "There is a lot of speculation on how the sparrows were affected by such changes," says Dr Raman.

Living in close proximity with humans, sparrows used to build their nests below tiled roofs. With contemporary architecture making a clean sweep in cities, tiled roofs became a thing of the past, and sparrows lost prospective nesting spots. Also, the birds were used to pecking at grain in backyards of homes where housewives cleaned paddy or wheat. Grain spills outside godowns or provision stores drew a lot of sparrows twittering over them. But now, with backyard cleaning virtually extinct, and polythene packaging taking over from gunny bags, there are no handy spills, and neither are there twitters.

However, Pittie does not zero in on this as the single reason for the declining sparrow population. "It might surely be an indication that the urban environment does not suit them any longer. But that is also not completely the case. The sparrow populations have declined only in some cities. Therefore in Bombay one can still see sparrows, whereas in Hyderabad they have become rarer. Without some sort of long-term study one cannot comment on the reasons of the decline" he says.

Such caution is justifiable, considering an earlier case, with vultures. In the nineties, the vulture population saw a catastrophic decline. What was once a widespread species fell into the bracket of "critically endangered" in the span of just one decade. There was much speculation about the reasons, including the fact that the scavengers hardly had carcasses to feed on anymore. It was later proved that the villain in the story was the chemical diclosenac sodium, a pain killer used for livestock, but fatal to vultures; the birds would die within 72 hours of feeding on carcasses containing traces of the chemical.

Nonetheless, one thing is clear, says Dr Raman. "What has happened to the birds is a very sensitive indicator that the environment is changing. In recent times, sparrows are not the only birds that have moved out from cities. Says Bangalore based avid bird watcher Gayatri B, "In Bangalore, we used to see a lot of bee-eaters, kingfishers, golden orioles and sun birds. There are hardly any around now." But the conditions seem to be proving more hospitable for other birds, as there are mynahs and kites. Gayatri attributes the increase in kites to the large amount of garbage generated in the city, on which the birds feed.

Pittie points out that in UK, data on bird populations are available with the British Trust for Ornithology, which has programmes that not only collect but also analyse and disseminate information. So much so that it influences government policy. "To a great extent this is the work of amateur bird watchers. So it is imperative to have a national programme -- coordinated on a country-wide basis -- that is controlled by a nodal agency to monitor bird populations. It can be done, for there are enough birdwatchers, at least in urban areas, to get the results," he says.

Our smoky and unfriendly cities may be forcing birds to take wing and head elsewhere. The challenge is to arrest that, and to bring back some of the familiarity with the natural world that was common not so long ago. (Quest Features and Footage)