Sparrows have been around for very many years. Two jawbones of pre-domestic sparrows more than 100,000 years old, were found in a layer of sediment in a cave in Israel. The modern house sparrow started appearing in fossil records 10,000 or 20,000 years ago. With the spread of agriculture, house sparrows began to live among humans and spread across the globe. In the process they evolved in size, shape, color and behavior in different regions.
It was not smooth sailing for them though. Mao viewed sparrows as one of the four “great” pests of his regime (along with rats, mosquitoes and flies). There were several billions of them in China. Once Mao decided to kill the sparrows, he commanded people all over the country in March of 1958, to come out of their houses to bang pots and make the sparrows fly which they did. The sparrows flew until exhausted, then they died mid-air, and fell to the ground, their bodies still warm with exertion. Sparrows were also caught in nets, poisoned and killed anyway they could be, adults and eggs alike. By some estimates, a billion birds were killed.
The story of ecology is much more complex. When the sparrows were killed, crop production increased, at least initially. But with time, pests of rice and other agricultural produce increased in numbers never seen before. As a result of this and the ensuing crop failure, 35 million Chinese people died. It was then noticed that while adult tree sparrows mostly eat grains, their babies, like those of house sparrows, tend to be fed insects. In killing the sparrows, Mao and the Chinese had saved the crops from the sparrows, but seemed not to have considered the threat posed by the insects. And so Mao in 1960, ordered sparrows to be conserved!
The story of the house sparrows in India is a disheartening, gloomy one. Over the past two decades, their population is on a rapid decline in almost every city. The reasons attributed are many: rapidly changing cities are no longer a suitable habitat for the house sparrow, as the new and modern designs of infrastructure does not give any room for the sparrow to nest; pollution, pesticides and diminishing ecological resources for sustenance further compound the issue.
Sparrows finds mention in ancient Tamil literature. Kuṟuntokai which is the second of the Eight Anthologies (Ettuthokai) in the Sangam literature has some lovely poems about sparrows. This particular one describes the lament of a lady who misses her lover.
ஆம்பல் பூவின் சாம்பல் அன்ன
கூம்பிய சிறகர் மனை உறை குரீஇ
முன்றில் உணங்கல் மாந்தி, மன்றத்து
எருவின் நுண் தாது குடைவன ஆடி,
இல் இறைப் பள்ளித் தம் பிள்ளையொடு வதியும் 5
புன்கண் மாலையும் புலம்பும்
இன்று கொல் தோழி, அவர் சென்ற நாட்டே?
In the house
colored like 'ambal' flowers
sparrows with closed wings
eat the grains
spread out in the courtyard
peck and play merrily
with their chicks
on the dried dung
outside the house
On this dull evening
I feel lonely
Where have you gone
My dear one?
(An adaptive translation of mine!)
Subramanya Bharathi wrote a famous poem about sparrows being the symbol of freedom. விட்டுவிடுதலையாகிநிற்பாயிந்தச் சிட்டுகுருவியைபோலே, Stay liberated –Like this little sparrow. Renowned Hindi author, Mahadevi Verma’s story ‘Goraiya’ has wonderful descriptions of a sparrow eating grains from her hands, playing hide and seek and hopping around.
There are many different species of sparrows. While birding in the Point Reyes area near San Francisco, my attention was drawn to a small bird that fluttered down and settled itself on a leafy thicket. Soon it serenaded me with one of the most beautiful bird calls interspersed with chips and trills that I have ever heard. True to its name, it was a Song Sparrow!
Unfortunately in our urban milieu the song of the sparrows has been silenced. It’s time that we bring back the chirpy sparrows into our lives….