Suddenly, Squirrels and Sparrows

Even as the city of Bombay gets increasingly uninhabitable with every passing day for decent, civilised folk, there are other species that seem to thrive in the pollution, overcrowding, filth, garbage and grime. Crows, rodents and pigeons are three of them, and as their numbers inexorably escalate, the figures are as good a benchmark as any to indicate the inexorable degeneration into death of what was once a truly great city of the world.

But there are other species of animals and birds whose sudden appearance or return might indicate that despite everything, there’s hope for this damned city after all.

Squirrels

First, the squirrel. For the forty-plus years that I have lived in the western suburb of Khar, I have never once spotted a squirrel in the neighbourhood. Until sometime around the first quarter of this year. It all started with a rather loud, rapid, high-pitched, persistent chirping sound coming from the trees behind our house every afternoon. The sound was bird-like, but unlike anything I had heard before. Finally I decided to investigate, and, establishing the direction from which the sound originated, suddenly spotted the creature making the racket – a rather small squirrel with a rather large bushy tail that flapped with each cheep-cheep, high up in the neem tree overhanging our backyard. For several days that was the only squirrel that seemed to be around, the desperate shrieking ostensibly a result of its being entirely alone. But soon I started hearing the now recognisable sound along several of the byroads in the vicinity (most of which have pretty good tree cover) and have since spotted many more squirrels all over the place, not only in the suburbs of Khar and Santa Cruz but also in Dadar and Parel in the centre of the city, during my regular walking expeditions.

Also known as tree rodents, squirrels are cute from a distance but can become quite pesky as their numbers increase and they get used to humans. They chew on hard objects (edible or otherwise) to keep their teeth sharp, upset potted plants and kitchen gardens in attempts to find and/or bury food and even enter houses to nest or search for food. Squirrels can also be carriers of disease, so it’s best to keep one’s distance and not encourage them by luring them with food or attempting to touch and pet them.

Sparrows

Another species that has made a spectacular comeback to Bombay is the common house sparrow. A few years ago, ecologists, activists and other busybodies were falling over themselves in their eagerness to come up with esoteric postulations to explain the disappearance of sparrows from the city. Strangely, sparrows were indeed disappearing from cities, and not only in Bombay; other Indian cities reported dwindling numbers too, as did world cities such as London.

A precise reason for the decline was not immediately apparent. But of course that did not deter the wild speculation. One fine day someone noticed that sparrow populations started decreasing about the time that the number of cell phone towers started increasing. No formal study had been done, but it was concluded that the radiation affected the nervous system and reproductive cycles of sparrows. No other birds, just sparrows. Not impossible surely, but never proven.

Another theory was that as older buildings with architecture conducive for sparrows to build nests were being torn down and replaced by stark high-rises with no convenient nooks and crannies, the poor critters had no option but to up and leave. Actually, while it is true that new construction has been widespread in the suburbs, much of South Bombay remains unchanged. And there are still many areas in the suburbs where old buildings persist. The place where we live for instance, host to innumerable sparrow nests in the distant past, suddenly seemingly became inhospitable a few years ago, despite remaining architecturally unchanged.

One “world expert on sparrows” linked their decline to the introduction of unleaded petrol. Denis Summers-Smith said that the by-products of the combustion of this fuel killed small insects, depriving fledglings of an essential food source.

Finally, most plausible of all, although also unsubstantiated, was the theory that rapid increases in the numbers of crows and pigeons, which competed aggressively for food and space, simply drove the sparrows away. In addition, crows would prey on the sparrow fledglings, snatching them away even as they flew the nest.

Whether separately or collectively, these and other theories were gravely put forth as reasons for the flight of the sparrow from the city, much akin to rats leaving a sinking ship, in the eyes of the doomsayers.

Round Trip

And then the good ol’ sparrow went and confounded everyone by returning right back to Bombay! After many sparrowless years, I spotted a sparrow family flitting around in the trees opposite the Santa Cruz Bus Depot last August. Subsequently I saw one in our garden (curiously, it’s been the only one there to date), and then many, many more this spring and summer, chirping and cavorting in the substantial green cover characteristic of the backroads of this section of suburban Bombay.

So it seems that the sparrows’ leave of absence for a few years from the city of Bombay will remain a mystery. And the fact that the sparrows chose to come back despite the appalling state of the city suggests that there just might be a glimmer of hope. Nevertheless, squirrels or no squirrels, sparrows or no sparrows, studies or no studies, it’s pretty evident (to me at least) that the city of Bombay is on the very brink. How much longer until it topples over? Start counting crows.

-  Val Souza

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1 comment to Suddenly, Squirrels and Sparrows

  • This disappearance of the common house sparrow from the urban areas is not something new, nor is it restricted by political boundaries. But responses to this disappearance have been quite muted in India, unlike elsewhere. A few years ago, it rang quite some alarm bells in Europe when the population of sparrows fell drastically – by up to 85 per cent – in London. On the other hand, in India, the phenomenon has hardly ruffled a feather, apart from concerns raised in the scientific community and among naturalists.

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