Tsi, tsi, tsi! I was stopped on my way by a chirping noise. It was an August evening last year. Under the twilight sky, a rare sight almost took my breath away: Hundreds of sparrows foregathering on a bokul (Mimusops elengi) tree on a sidewalk of the busy Guwahati-Shillong road. The tree bustled with their chirping but these welcome call notes dimmed under the hustle of a noisy city. It was for the first time I came across a community roost of sparrows at the heart of the city -- at a time when the world is voicing concern over their dwindling population. The idea to film the birds crossed my mind instantly. I called up a friend to prepare for a shoot the very next morning.
We started before dawn and positioned our camera under the bokul tree while the city was still in deep slumber. As we counted the seconds, my eardrums once again filled with the welcoming chirpy notes. The birds showed up from under the leaves. It seemed as if each and every leaf concealed a sparrow! They reached out for the electric cables, collected on the telegraph poles, dotting each cable overhead. A sudden white splash of droppings or a few unwanted feathers would touch down gently as the winged creatures warmed up for a busy day ahead. Their twitter filled the morning air.
Looking at the enormous flock, it is hard to believe the sparrow is now a disappearing species!
Within 10-15 minutes, the flock thinned with the birds heading for the suburbs in different groups. It was 4:45 a.m. They are all gone except for a few breeding pairs. I decided to follow the pairs. To follow a tiny bird in busy traffic may sound strange, but that is exactly what I did that August morning last year to the curiosity of hundreds of busy onlookers. My venture did yield a result!
The decline in the number of sparrows is attributed to ecological disturbance coupled with
increasing electro-magnetic radiation and destruction of their natural habitat. Further, lack of food and nesting sites, the effects of pesticides continue to threaten the sparrow. The shift to new lifestyles, even in rural areas, has come into conflict with the sparrow's basic existential needs. The Assam-type roofs gave way to high rises, the use of glass and steel in the buildings reduced the availability of nesting sites for the Passer domesticus. However, like most bird species, the house sparrow is highly adaptable -- at least-- my venture with the camera last August amidst the busy city traffic proved that.
Modern life-styles notwithstanding, the house sparrow is going to stay and continue to be a
"hanger-on of man," as I see the bird slowly adapting to a life in the concrete slabs! It is neither the mud-and-thatch dwelling (a rarity), nor the match box. Rather, the bird has learned the art of carving out a comfortable niche of its own in the little openings of the concrete slabs of the city's flyovers! My camera followed three breeding pairs from the bokul tree to the nearby flyover. I brimmed with joy when I discovered the three pairs hanging out from their new "apartments"! A male fluffed out his feathers as he struts about arrogantly, quite oblivious of the heavy traffic. The birds seemed to have arranged for their living comfort inside the concrete and are comfortable in their "new homes" as much as the ones raising a new brood in the holes of my bedroom ceiling!
Mubina Akhtar is a Guwahati-based environment journalist and a wildlife expert.