Thursday, March 20, 2014

Today (20th March) is World Sparrows Day (WSD)

Today (20 March) is the World Sparrow Day (WSD), declared to draw much-needed attention to the declining species and to harness popular support in the efforts needed to conserve them. This day was initially named as the World House Sparrow Day (WHSD) in 2010 but was broadened to include and draw attention to the reduction of all species of sparrows in the world in 2011 and renamed as the World Sparrow Day (WSD).
House Sparrow
Image courtesy of Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

This is the fourth consecutive year the day is commemorated. It is an international initiative carried out jointly by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), together with the Nature Forever Society, in co-operation with various national and international bodies in different countries. This initiative was the idea of Mohammad Dilwar of the Nature Forever Society who has been studying them. It is seen that many countries have come to realize that this very common bird, found always in the company of man, has been in decline for the past decade or more in different countries. Hence, the declaration of a World Sparrow Day (WSD) is a welcome move to draw attention with a view to conserving them as well as to highlight the underlying causes.

The decline
The House Sparrow is a native of Asia, North Africa and Europe and has several different sub-species (or forms) within this range. The form found in most of the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka is the Indian House Sparrow (Passer domesticus indicus).This species was introduced to Southern Africa, Australia, America and oceanic islands by European invaders who made these countries their colonies, for emotional reasons, as they wanted familiar plants and animals amongst them in these unfamiliar and far-off places,(In some American bird literature, it is still sometimes called the English Sparrow). In these new habitats, the sparrow had no natural enemies and was able to breed and spread very quickly. This happened so much that it was subsequently deemed as a pest by some countries it colonized, in contrast to the native lands where it has always been considered a welcome presence. The Guiness Book of Records on Birds has listed it as the bird that has spread over much of the earth during the past two centuries, because it is now found in over 2/3 of the land mass of the earth.

Good luck
However, the decline of the only sparrow found in Sri Lanka the Indian House Sparrow has been occurring since the mid-1970s' but has still not drawn the attention it deserves. This is rather strange because the House Sparrow is one of the most well-known and beloved birds in the country. It is welcomed by many and some even go to the extent of providing suitable nesting sites to attract them to houses. There is a belief that this bird brings good luck and prosperity to the dwellers of houses where it is allowed to reside. Hence, it is a great disappointment to some and a cause for unease and alarming to many more, to see this bird vanishing from their houses. It has caused disappointment to many who see it as a welcome and familiar presence in the surroundings. This has drawn the interest of others who believe that there is an underlying ecological warning behind this trend. The efforts to draw attention to the disappearance have been carried out by me since 1998.

The decline of House Sparrows was detected by me in Ampara in 1976 and subsequently in other parts of the country in the following years. My studies and observations are still continuing from those days. What was observed initially by me was that although the birds nested and laid eggs in our house in Ampara as usual, the eggs failed to hatch and there were no subsequent generations after the death of the parents. Thus, this decline was gradual and caused them to vanish from our house by the end of that decade. However, inquiries revealed that many people failed to notice it until there were no House Sparrows in their houses and surroundings. This decline and subsequent disappearance of House Sparrows has been observed by me in 17 Districts in Sri Lanka. They are Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Ampara, Monaragala, Badulla, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura and Kegalle. Since no studies were carried out in the other districts, it is not possible to determine the status of the House Sparrow in them.

Use of mosquito coils
The House Sparrow shows the same pattern of decline and disappearance throughout the country. They breed as usual but the nests fail to produce any young and they slowly reduce in numbers as the adults die and disappear after a time. It is always seen that although it is absent in residential areas in many of the districts; it is always plentiful in the busy town centres where there are shops. This situation is seen even in the busy, commercial areas of Colombo, Kandy, Galle and Matara where there are quite large and thriving populations of the House Sparrows. In contrast, it is very much absent in the residential areas of the same towns. The belief among the people of the Digamadulla (Ampara) District who were aware of this in the late 1970s was that Malathion which was sprayed to control the Anopheles mosquito (the malaria-vector) was the cause for the decline. The next wave of decline of the House Sparrow was seen since the mid1990's, notably in the Hambantota and Badulla Districts, where they were quite plentiful during the 1980's when there was a decline in many other districts.

Inquiries made in these areas in the 1990's revealed that the people of these places where the second wave of decline occurred have been regularly using mosquito coils. This use has occurred only a short time before a decline was noted. These coils all have different types of synthetic Pyrethroids as active ingredients. These synthetic Pyrethroids are known to be extremely toxic to birds and interfere with the reproduction of birds and hence it is quite possible that these chemicals would be a prime cause for the decline and disappearance of House Sparrow.

The House Sparrow is a hardy, adaptable, omnivore that can feed on a very wide range of edible matter, from seeds and grains to leftover food and insects and other small creatures. Similarly, it builds the nest in any available nook and cranny, and has a distinct preference to nest in human dwellings where it not only finds resting and nesting sites, but also an abundant and steady supply of food throughout the year. It is not shy of human presence and can always be seen near people, searching for food and foraging around without getting frightened. Hence, this decline is different from the decline of many others who cannot adapt to urban areas. It was seen that the decline has nothing to do with food or suitable dwelling sites both of which are still available in abundance in all the places from which it has declined and disappeared.

Legal protection
The real reasons for the decline and disappearance of the House Sparrow from many areas of Sri Lanka has yet to be ascertained and we can only presume some possible causes and continue with the observations as was in the past to see whether the causes can be definitely found out. It is also seen that there are slight recoveries in some areas as in Nuwara Eliya since 2008, but is still too early to predict whether this trend will continue in the future or spread to other areas as well. In these circumstances, the move to make the House Sparrow a protected species of birds is praiseworthy, as it show that the authorities are aware of and are sensitive to the decline of this much liked and familiar bird. This happened with the amending of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance in 2009, implementing a decision taken by the Ministry of Environment in 2008. According to the provisions of Section 31 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (as amended by Act No. 22 of 2009), it is an offence to kill, harm, injure, keeping in captivity, sell and any protected species of bird or any part of a killed bird. It is an offence under Section 54 to make or serve any food that contains any part of a protected species.

There are those who think that the House Sparrow does not need any legal protection because no one seems to threaten their existence deliberately. The only instances when this bird was deliberately killed were in a small area of the Eastern Province where they were trapped and killed for human consumption. It cannot be said that others may not acquire a taste for this bird as the current trend is to feed on species that were unharmed during the past. The more important reason may be to prevent the destruction of the breeding places by those who may consider this bird as a nuisance.

The present decline of the House Sparrow seems to carry a deeper ecological message, as presumed and feared by many. The fact that it can thrive in busy non-residential areas but not in residential areas show that something found or carried out in residences but not in commercial areas seems to be the cause for the decline.

Deeper ecological message
A series of observations have shown that there are no people staying the night in the commercial areas as opposed to residences and hence there are no mosquito coils and chemicals being sprayed in these places. At the same time, it was also found out that several other animals that were common in households have vanished or are in decline. These include familiar creatures such as the small Wolf Spiders (Jumping Spiders) and the Potter Wasps (Ran-Kumbala in Sinhala). The total of these observations add credence to the assumption that vector control measures could have contributed, not only for the decline of the House Sparrow, but in a general decline of other animals that were found in houses. Since all these chemicals are poisonous not only to the intended target species but all creatures in general, and are more accurately referred to as 'Biocides' for this reason, the underlying message that is conveyed could well be that we are slowly poisoning ourselves to death by the continuous and increased reliance on them to control unwanted pests.

By Jagath Gunawardana

Jetwing St. Andrew’s celebrate World Sparrows day with the support of Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka

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