Spot the sparrow

Lieut-Gen Baljit Singh (retd) on the highly dependable house sparrow, 
manís longest living avian associate

IN the midst of concerns about the future of one of manís oldest living commensals, that is the house sparrow, there is a ray of hope yet. Given a conducive habitat, all other side-effects of the modern day lifestyles notwithstanding, the house sparrow should be the last to wander off the living planet.

The hen sparrow (left) is conspicuous by the sobriety of her feathered robes
The hen sparrow (left) is conspicuous by the
sobriety of her feathered robes

The pitch-black oval patch over its chin, throat and breast is a prominent feature of the cock sparrow
The pitch-black oval patch over its chin, throat and breast is a prominent feature of the cock sparrow    
Photos by the writer

Admittedly, the house sparrow is a sober-looking bird but nevertheless it makes its presence felt in India by its ubiquitous spread; from Leh in the north to Cape Commorin in the south and from the Somnath Temple in the west to the Camorta island in the east. Its absence from a small patch of the Annamalies in Kerala, from the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh and from along the international border with Burma in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland, is possibly attributed to excessive rainfall. Yet it is baffling that a group of Indian ornitholgists who visited the Andaman-Nicobar archipelago in 2006, recorded a fairly large presence of the house sparrow from the north and south Andaman and Camorta islands too. No wonder, late Salim Ali had called it "manís hanger-on". They enter homes fearlessly and unmindful of the inmates, the birds set about to arrange their own living comfort by adding heaps of straw to any potential nest-site.

There was a time when a man, anywhere on the globe, could set his chronometer to the local sunrise time by listening to the first chirp of the sparrows. This phenomenal genetic ability of the bird is still active and accurate but we can no longer perceive it because of noise pollution. Most of us would know this bird through photographs but not even two out of 10 Indians today would have seen the bird per se in the outdoors. Well, it may not count among the flamboyantly colourful birds of India but it is certainly handsome, lively and very precocious.

What attracts the eye first on sighting the bird is the pitch-black oval patch over its chin, throat and breast. The rest of the lower parts are snow-white. Its crown and nape are silvery steel-grey, and the sides of the neck are bright chestnut, which extends to the upper back. The remainder plumage is pale brown with superimposed bold black streaks. Now that is the cock house sparrow for you. The hen sparrow differs by the absence of black and chestnut colours on the plumage but she is conspicuous by the sobriety of her feathered robes.

Altogether, we have eight species of the sparrow in India. Among the resident-breeders, besides the house sparrow, there is the Eurasian tree sparrow (Uttaranchal, Sikkim, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Mizoram) and the yellow-throated sparrow (all over India except Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal, Sikkim and the NE states). There is one passage-migrant species in Ladakh namely the Spanish sparrow, which descends to the plains as the winter-visitor to Rajasthan and Haryana. And last but not the least, there is one isolated population of the species called the rock sparrow in a limited area of the Karakorams region of Ladakh.

Now where its worldwide spread is concerned, the house sparrow had since time immemorial spread all over Europe, Russia across Siberia, Africa, most of Central and West Asia, China, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma and Malaya. In the not-so-distant past, the bird was introduced in America, Australia, New Zealand and the Maldives where it has flourished ever since.

The house sparrow is a sturdy breeder raising three broods of two to five chicks, thrice each year. So the population does not merely "hold" but steadily reaches the optimum survival figure for the given area. No description of the bird will be complete without a mention of the strong streak of tenacity in her character. And here I can do no better than quote the master, Edward Hamilton Atkins (born at Satara around 1845 to Scotish parents) from his book Common Birds of Bombay (1900):

"And when a sparrow makes up its mind, nothing will unmake it except the annihilation of that sparrow. Its faithful spouse is always, and very strongly, of the same mind. So they set to work to make a hole in the corner of the ceiling cloth and they tear and tug with an energy, which leaves no room for failure. Then they begin to fetch hay and the quantities which a couple will carry in a day is miraculous."

Much like most bird species, the house sparrow is highly adaptable. Even though its traditional wilderness has been usurped and its living niche inside manís once mud-and-thatch dwelling replaced by glass and concrete but the house sparrow could well be the last on this living-planet if mankind were to spare just one hundredth of its cereal intake and put up hedges and shrubs around homes.