The Delhi government last week announced that the house sparrow would be, from now on, the official bird of the state. The little, chirruping birds were traditionally a familiar part of life in India’s capital — sitting on window ledges and telephone wires, nesting in the spring and flying about at dusk in great flocks. Yet those who have seen Delhi only in the past decade or so will have few such memories; there has been a sharp decline in the number of sparrows in the city, one of the reasons why the state government has chosen to highlight the bird. This decline in the population of the sparrow is not exclusive to Delhi or to India’s cities. The bird, which was till very recently abundant over two-thirds of the world’s land surface, has disappeared from large stretches now. In parts of north-western Europe, it is even considered to be endangered.
It is important to remember that common birds, like the sparrow, are as important a part of biodiversity as any other element. Frequently, city-dwellers assume that they live in an environment completely insulated from the pressures of nature, and one over which humans have complete control. This is not true. Crows both control the amount of garbage on India’s streets, and will grow their population in response to increasing amounts of garbage. Similarly, sparrows depend on insect populations; in their absence, the insect problem will increase. Equally, the overuse of pesticides will cause feeding on pesticide-resistant insects to kill off sparrows. There are also concerns that electromagnetic radiation from cellphone towers, for example, is affecting sparrows’ longevity, though this has not been properly demonstrated yet.
There are, even given these concerns, many simple steps that can be taken to restore the sparrow population. The most important is simple acceptance: that some areas of the urban landscape, of cities’ architecture, will be taken over by birds. Sparrows nested in the cavities common in old-style buildings; modern architecture, flat-faced glass-and-concrete, does not provide them with suitable spaces. Of course, more green spaces in the middle of India’s towns will help both their human and their animal inhabitants. Pesticide use in cities should be looked at again — it is clear that it has negative effects on urban fauna, and thus can, in the long term, harm the ways that nature itself controls insect populations. In the absence of sensible, far-reaching approaches to urban biodiversity, India will continue to lose species like the sparrow which do not just serve a crucial purpose in maintaining public spaces and the urban habitat, but also create by their presence an aesthetic sense of space so important for town-dwellers.
Delhi’s attempt to put an urban bird in the forefront of public conservation efforts should thus be applauded, as a shift from the traditional way in which biodiversity is imagined in India. The sooner Indians recognise the fact that increasing urbanisation does not mean that animal and bird populations have to be wiped out, the better.