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The two most mesmerizing things about early mornings for me have always been the beautiful sunrise and the melodious chirpings of early birds. Unfortunately, in our major cities, both these beauties are fading away at an alarming rate, mostly due to rapid urbanization and the factors associated with it. It doesn’t take much effort to observe that the bird population in major cities is declining fast. Even the population of common birds like sparrows, which are often taken for granted, is also dropping at a rapid rate.
This decline in population of sparrows can be observed throughout the world. Sparrows have become a threatened species, and have seen a long term decline in both urban and suburban environments. Sparrows are already on the UK’s IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, where Greater London lost nearly 70 per cent of its sparrows between 1994 and 2001. Likewise, the situation became so alarming in our neighbouring country, India, that in 2012, sparrows were declared the state bird of Delhi and countrywide efforts were initiated for their conservation. It is feared by many ornithologists that the only reason sparrows are not on the Red List in Pakistan yet is that nobody has so far attempted to actually count the number of these birds existing at present.
What can possibly be the reason that a species of birds, so common to sight and so successful in adapting to the fast-paced urbanization taking place around its habitat, is declining at such an alarming rate. In Pakistan, the decline in the population of sparrows can be attributed to many factors including rapid urbanization, resulting in excessive deforestation and cutting of native trees and plants, which not only provide hiding, resting, roosting and nesting places for small birds including sparrows but also provide the seeds and insects necessary for raising their chicks. In cities, sparrows are now seen nesting in odd places; in buildings or in gaps between shutters, which is not a suitable and rather highly dangerous breeding ground.
Urbanization is also resulting in pollution, which has contaminated food and water sources of sparrows. It is also believed that electromagnetic radiation caused from cell phone towers is lethal for sparrows and their chicks, who are highly sensitive to these rays which interfere with the navigation and nervous system of these birds. Moreover, the excessive use of pesticides and unleaded petrol also kills insects, which sparrows feed their chicks.
The increase in demand for sparrows as food is also one of the reasons for its decline. Some eat it out of superstition or the common belief that male sparrows’ meat and bones have an aphrodisiac effect on men. Furthermore, chiras are considered to be a very exotic dish in many cities of Pakistan.
Another major reason for the decline of the sparrow population is an increase in the population of birds higher in the food chain who feed on sparrows, such as kites and crows, as well as an increase in the population of rival species of sparrows such as wild pigeons. Among the most important reasons for the increase in population of these bird species is garbage, open slaughterhouses and offering of sadaqa, where people throw meat scraps for kites and crows, and feed wild pigeons as good deeds and to remove the evil eye. Whenever there is enough food for birds of prey, the environment will suit them and their population will increase at a faster rate scaring smaller, chirping birds away. Sparrows are too small in size to defend themselves or their chicks and become an open feast for birds of prey. An increased population of pigeons means increased burden on food resources. Wild pigeons are much larger in size as compared to sparrows and therefore are no match with their rival in the fight for survival.
Another form of sadaqa, which one can easily observe, is the concept of freeing some birds as a good deed. You can easily spot vendors sitting on roadsides with a cage full of sparrows which can be freed by paying the vendor a certain sum. Imagine what those poor creatures must go through while being caged. How can anybody be convinced with the idea of imprisoning a living creature only to set it free afterwards as a good deed; this is one thing I fail to understand at all.
Sparrows form an important part of our ecosystem as nothing in this world is ever useless no matter how small it is. Everything is interconnected. Sparrows not only serve as a source of food for animals and birds higher up in food chain, but also spread seeds while feeding on fruits and berries, to different places, which is important for germination. By spreading seeds, sparrows help with the survival of many plants that are producers in the ecosystem. Sparrows also feed on small insects and worms, some of which destroy plants and crops. So, sparrows again play an important role in the preservation of the ecosystem by keeping the population of these insects and worms in check.
We may be able to send a man to the moon or even to Mars but it is impossible to bring back an extinct species. There is a dire need to put in some serious and concerted efforts towards the preservation of sparrows. A few lonely conservation efforts by civil society do exist such as NEST, a small-scale initiative by students of Government College Lahore, which raises awareness about the critical decline of sparrows in the city of Lahore and is promoting artificial nesting and bird feeding to bring them back. However, for the majority of people, sparrows are not glamorous enough to work for their conservation and many don’t even consider these birds an endangered species. Should we really wait for them to become endangered before we do anything for their conservation?
The government should also make serious efforts by promoting awareness among the masses. Indigenous trees native to the areas must be planted in abundance instead of exotic trees. There should be parks in all major areas within cities, housing these native trees. The practice of capturing and eating sparrows should also be banned by the government and strict punishments must be enforced among those found involved in these practices. There should also be a check and balance, and proper environmental feasibility of cell phone towers in cities.
We can also make many individual efforts in this regard. One intervention is wooden nesting boxes, which can be designed specifically for sparrows and which keep larger, rival birds out. These boxes can be hung on balconies and trees. We can even plant indigenous trees in our homes and can keep unpaved areas in gardens and lawns, where sparrows can find insects for their chicks.
March 20 is World Sparrow Day, designated to raising awareness of the house sparrow and its conservation. Let’s all rise for the sparrows and commemorate each day as World Sparrow Day so that our mornings are not devoid of the chirping of these beautiful birds and we continue to enjoy them forever.
Kiran Hameedi is an occasional freelance writer, whose areas of interests are diverse.