Birds of India

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Sparrows, science and species conservation in India
August 15th I Dr K. S. Gopi Sundar, Director of Program SarusScape

The subject of the disappearance of House Sparrows from urban areas has caught the imagination of the Indian bird-loving public. In the absence of any worthwhile surveys to measure population changes, the so called decline in sparrows remains a hypothetical question at best.
Here K.S. Gopi Sundar, one of India's foremost writers on ornithological subjects, and an honorary Advisor to our website, examines the issues related to the hype with science as a tool - Editor

Sparrows, science and species conservation in India
by K.S. Gopi Sundar

March 20 was declared the World House Sparrow Day. Conservationists got together for the occasion with a powerful political leader presided over the ceremonies. The organisations involved ranged from the prestigious Cornell University Laboratory to the founder-organisation of the sparrow movement, Nature Forever Society of Mumbai.

The event of course begged several questions, the first of which is of course why sparrows? The answer is long-winded, but a fascinating tale. In this article I explore this and other core questions related to how information in the media may not have the backing of real science, but why populist events like the Sparrow Day are important for conservation.

The House Sparrow is a widely recognized species wherever it occurs. Its Latin name, Passer domesticus, and its common English name are both reminiscent of their close relationship with humans for a very long time. The darker male with its black bib and the dull female are among the first birds children in cities and villages learn to identify. In the United Kingdom, long-term counts being carried out in several locations by volunteers led to a rather alarming conclusion - the common House Sparrow was declining in numbers. The erstwhile very common bird entered the Red List of UK’s endangered species for the first time in 2002. These results, published in peer-reviewed journals as is required for science, showed that declines were as much as 68% overall and over 90% in urban areas, and the bird disappeared from the famous Kensington Gardens in central London.

In urban areas, a range of reasons for the decline were posited for the decline. These included predation by urban cats and crows, reduction in hedges and gardens that sparrows may breed in, and lack of food especially insects that are important to raise young birds. These results widely publicised by the media inspired Mohammed Dilawar from Mumbai to take some action in India. A lecturer by profession, he took up the cause of the sparrows in Mumbai single-handedly. Dilawar believes that sparrows in Mumbai have declined, and assists hundreds of sparrows by feeding them, putting out water, and setting up and selling bird-houses to ensure that they can nest safely. Many many bird-houses later, Dilawar was honoured by TIME Magazine as a Hero of the Environment in
2008. His continued efforts led to the declaration of the World House Sparrow Day.

The tale of the commonplace sparrow is not all gloom-and-doom as much of the popular media reports would have us believe. Dr. Denis Summer-Smith in the UK has been working on sparrows since 1947, and has written a considerable amount on their decline. Much of what I will write here is based on his observations and writings. Sparrow decline in rural England tracked mechanisation, increased use of chemicals, and intensification. Between the 1970s and 1990s, sparrows in UK’s farmlands declined , but have been stable since. Sparrow declines in urban areas were most drastic in central London, but much smaller in sub-urban areas and smaller towns.

In London, sparrows declined most after 1920 immediately after the horse-drawn carriages were replaced by the motor-car. Spillage of grain and even undigested grain in horse droppings provided food for sparrows, which diminished greatly when motorised vehicles took over. The next rapid decline was recorded between 1996 and 2001 for reasons not yet entirely clear. In smaller urban centres, no decline of sparrows was apparent, and may have been due to sparrows from farm areas moving in. Dr. Robinson and colleagues from the British Trust for Ornithology calculated that there were 13.2 million sparrows during the breeding season in Britain in 2005. To complicate matters, volunteer counts conducted between 1994 and 2000 all over Europe showed that while sparrows declined marginally overall in this period, they actually increased in Scotland and Wales.

So why should sparrows decline so much only in a few urbanised areas of UK? Cats and crows are found everywhere, so cannot explain this imbalanced decline. Sparrows are found even in areas without bushes and hedges, and in some places with hedges where monitoring has been long-term, sparrows have disappeared.

The one hypothesis that is gaining traction is the reduced insect foods theory. Simon Bower in Hamburg, Vincent Peach in Leicester, and van der Poel from Amsterdam, to name a few of the scientists, have demonstrated that nestling starvation early in the nesting season is the reason for fewer chicks surviving. Compelling evidence of lowered survival leading to declines in the overall population comes from a thorough study by Siriwardena and colleagues published in the prestigious ornithological journal IBIS. It currently appears that multiple factors are working to reduce the sparrow populations in Europe and UK – locations where scientific attention on the species has been relatively considerable.

The trend is not one of simple decline everywhere, and a direct answer to their decline in central London continues to evade us. A £5,000 reward offered ten years ago by the British newspaper, The Independent, for a study that provides a scientific explanation for the sparrows’ decline remains unclaimed.

In contrast to the UK, scientific information on sparrows in India is meagre. A study of sparrows in 2008 in Bangalore by Rajshekar and Venkatesha of Bangalore University showed that areas with more foods for the birds had more sparrows. In the absence of previous information, they could not infer if the population had declined.

My surveys in Uttar Pradesh’s farmland areas in 2008-09 show the house sparrow to be the second most numerous bird species in the winter next only to the cattle egret – an extremely common waterbird found throughout India. Densities varied between 26 and 164 sparrows per square kilometre; this means that in Uttar Pradesh alone there are still lakhs of House Sparrows.

Dr. Neeraj Khera and her students in TERI University carried out a study in Delhi in 2007 and found more sparrows in areas with more green cover, but do not know where and to what extent declines of sparrows have occurred in the city. There simply is no previous data to say so. Sparrow densities in Delhi varied from 5 to 45 individual sparrows per square kilometre; meaning that they number in the thousands, at the very least, in the city.

Anecdotal observations in the popular media indicate that sparrows in Delhi, Bangalore and few other cities are declining. Careful watchers, however, maintain that numbers of sparrows in these cities had fallen earlier this decade, but appears to be on the rise once again. The simple fact is we do not know enough to state one way or the other. Statements in the popular press, however, would give a drastically different view of the sparrow – that they are in imminent decline and about to vanish.

Cats, cell-phone towers, declining vegetation in cities, and new style of housing are cited as being responsible for drastic declines in sparrow numbers. These views are simply not substantiated by actual studies, or the meager information we have on their numbers. House Sparrows are actually invasive to many countries and are thriving there at the cost of local species making people from these countries wonder why sparrows need celebratory attention, but that is another story altogether.

So what does one make of events like the World House Sparrow Day and the unsubstantiated doom-and-gloom statements that are provided to journalists? These are two very different but important questions. Given current governmental plans of development in the country, the decline in the state of our environment is imminent. Any action therefore meant to raise awareness about any species should be welcome. If one were to consider just birds, there is amazingly little known of the 1200 or so species that grace India. Even large species like the Great Indian Bustard, possibly the heaviest flying bird in India and one that is reputed to be declining precipitously, have received meager attention. The Bustard inhabits valuable grasslands and can serve to understand an entire ecosystem that both humans and a wide range of wild species are dependent on.

We can pick 3-4 species to celebrate each day, as Dilawar has done for the house sparrow, and cover all 1200 species in one year. The actual day for each species is not really important, and neither is there a necessity to fly into Delhi to celebrate each species. If anything this exercise should serve to reinforce how little we know of each species.

L. Shyamal, an active editor of bird accounts on Wikipedia, laments on this fact each time he picks a species to update. Many Indian bird species whose accounts he has updated don’t even have basic information like the incubation period, let alone long-term population information with which to conclusively infer the reasons for their current status. For many species, where some information is present, it is from old British records that may or may not have relevance today. Hopefully, increased awareness about our collective ignorance will lead to focused work that fills in these lacunae. This new information can in turn hopefully lead to identification of real problems, and species that require assistance on a priority basis given that financial resources and skill sets for
these are limited.

Events like the house sparrow day also lead to active associations of conservation activists, conservation biologists, and political leaders. These interactions are imperative to ensure that findings of scientists and conservation biologists are taken seriously by activists and law-makers, and to create independent channels of communication among them.

The second question of unsubstantiated statements is more serious. Statements like that make it appear that there is good and thoroughly verifiable information available. This is unfortunate on more than one count. It has the real danger of directing resources to species and issues that perhaps don’t really require it immediately, relative to species and issues that require immediate attention. It undermines efforts of people like Dilawar who are attempting to ensure increased awareness where there was none. It also undermines efforts of other scientists and science-based organisations who aim to provide authoritative information based on serious science – usually taking many years to discover even simple patterns. Finally, and most seriously, they provide the risk of scientific findings not being considered valid for intervention in policy and conservation.

As Karl Popper the statistician stated, our knowledge can only be finite while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite. Accepting that there is a lack of information only serves to empower new questions and new students to seek answers. Even after decades of work, Summers-Smith writes that it is necessary to determine the correct cause for the sparrows’ status before providing commentary. Even “confirmed sparrow lovers” like him “should retain a sense of proportion and not be moved solely by our emotions”.

Fortunately for Dilawar and the house sparrows, the situation in India is not yet dire for these well known feathered friends. There remains a huge amount to be discovered about sparrows, and about bird populations in India. There is fortunately a growing pool of responsible, well-trained young conservation biologists in the country. I feel optimistic that events like the World House Sparrow Day will increase and be powered by real science and verifiable information to the benefit of birds and humans alike.

K. S. Gopi Sundar
August 2011
Citation: Sundar, KSG. 2010. The New Indian Express, (Zeitgeist Suppl.), 10 Jul 2010, pg. 6

Also read the Blog Post by Sumit Sen on the same subject here

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