Murmuration of some birds is a strange but fascinating phenomenon. It has been observed with common starlings in Europe and India. In this phenomenon, groups consisting of thousands of birds fly together and are joined by more and more groups from the neighborhood. They fly together going up and down, changing direction suddenly making breathtaking patterns. But even being so close, they hardly collide with one another.
I was lucky to observe this phenomenon by chance but not with starlings which are not in plenty in our area but with House Sparrows.
So It was a double bonus and surprise. I at least have the notion that house Sparrows live in houses in small groups and also the most common belief that the population of house sparrows has declined to dangerously low levels. But I was proved wrong when I spotted them in the fields.
It was dusk time when it all started. I was roaming with my camera in the field located nearby to my home. There are two or three excavated areas in the fields which have become water bodies and Reed grass grows in them in adundance. It was early April and wheat crops have been reaped.
Suddenly, groups began arriving and joining over an area of say about 1 kilometer radius. The group will perform those maneuvers and suddenly once in while land on the electric transmission wires passing that place or plunge into the reeds. The numbers must be thousands. Then suddenly they will again take off and perform those maneuvers in the sky. This went on for till the darkness descended.
This was observed by me on three different evenings. Lastly, since two day in a row, the Sparrows have left the place suddenly. Baffling me. Why they have left and where they are headed. One apparent change is of course the reaping of the wheat harvest in those fields. But still the explanation is uncertain.
I grew up in a village. In my childhood days, there were lush green fields around our village. The land was very fertile and only animal manure was used to boost the crops. Water for irrigation came from the canals and a schedule for distribution of water according to the area of land a farmer had was fixed. We used to go to fields everyday after our school. We took many detours on our way to our field. In the summers, we took dip in the cool refreshing waters in the canals in which cattle also cooled themselves. We stole red ripe tomatoes, raw and ripe mangoes, maize corn and sugarcane etc in the winter seasons. I clearly remember that in the compound of our home, there were heaps of haystack. We burrowed in to them, it became very comfortable. There were two or sometimes three buffaloes in our home for milk.
Everyone was having a plenty of time for leisure in those days. Old people use to sit under the banyan trees with cool shadows and whiled away the time by gossiping. Nothing could remain secret as the village was so well knitted. Women used to go to fetch the water into the pails from the village wells.
Though we were not rich but we had not a single worry in the world. We chased the ducks and other animals. Our parents will sometimes chide us for running here and there running over the crops. We climbed on the the branches of trees. Many a times someone will fall down and break his arm or leg.
There were plenty of sparrows in our houses. In the morning and evening there would be incessant chirping in the houses as they settled for the night. In the morning, they acted like alarms for the day breaking. The sounds we heard in those days were of the birds, dogs and people. There was hardly any radio. There was no electricity and we used the kerosene lamps . People ate very early in the evening and went to bed. They would rise very early in the morning. After taking tea or lassi and few bread pieces they will proceed to their fields with their bullock carts. When they returned, there was dry fagots, branches of trees, fodder for cattle and vegetables in the cart. Things began changing as the Chandigarh city began to expand. Industries came along and spread poison in the air and water without scruples. Green area began to shrink. With the electricity came noise which distracted these small creatures.
The sparrow have a good presence in the Punjabi literature. Sparrows, though very small in size, gorge on food very quickly. There is a idiom which says that “Now it is of no use to repent, because when the sparrows foraged and eat all the grains in the field”. The unmarried young girls are compared to the sparrows. In some sad folk song, the girls are telling their father that they are just like sparrows and will fly away someday which is an allusion to their marriage and will never come back. There is a tingle of helplessness in their narration.
Now, I live in the town near Mumbai. It is happy to note that the sparrows visit the windows of our house everyday thanks to my wife taking care of them with seeds and water. Also there are lots of pigeons. Squirrels also come but they like slightly rough and bigger seeds like groundnuts. Pigeons like Bajra and rice. Sparrows mainly gorge themselves on the rice. There are vacuous crows which are the loudest and the meanest and most efficient eaters. They generally don’t like the grains and forage into the food thrown by the residents into the refuse collector bins. Occasionally, they grab a frail or injured sparrow or smaller bird than themselves and eat it. We also hear the cuckoos.
I have noticed this bird many a times. They are particularly active during the evening when the light is barely present. They make very sweet sounds. The color of the feathers is black with white on sides and at the bottom side. It is slightly bigger than a house sparrow. Particularly it is very active in the evening catching the flying insects. If I am not wrong, I have heard their sounds at about two or three o’clock in the morning. It is Oriental Magpie Robin!!
Little did I knew that this is the national bird of Bangladesh where it is called “Doel” rhyming with “Koel” the nightingale. It has been adopted due to its sweet singing. In fact, the bird belongs to passerine family which are perching birds and most of them are songbirds. That most of us take many birds, animals and trees for granted, we never care to know their names.
My curiosity arose when an incident happened. There was a small chick of this bird which was floundering and was caught by an crow which are so mean and ruthless in killing and eating the weak and ill and injured. They are the efficient agents of Darwin for sparing only the fittest of the living beings like the nature. The fledgling was about to torn to shreds when luckily it escaped the clutches and fell on the ground.
My wife who was looking at this drama, immediately rescued it and brought it to home. It was wounded in one leg and was not able to stand properly. We were at loss how to feed her something for its survival. I dipped its beak in the water and it reacted positively. Then I opened its beak and my wife put some water with a spoon. Then I thought that it must get some food but what?. We broke one egg and were able to push small quantity into its mouth.
That night we left it as such in our bathroom. In between, we noticed that it was answering calls of its parents who were outside in the trees where they are the regular visitors. But during night we were worried about its survival. Next morning, we again gave it some food and wet its beak with water. Then we put it in a cardboard box in which we made some holes and placed this box outside in our balcony.
Our surprise knew no bounds when we saw the strangest thing happening. In general, it is believed that the baby birds which are touched by humans are shunned by the parents. It proved to be totally myth. The parents located the child and began feeding it through the holes with insects. Whole day this went on. In the evening we purchased a cage from the market. It was very good cage but it proved useless for feeding. This was because the baby bird was sitting inside out of the reach and it would not budge from where it was sitting. It kept opening its beak and as the feeding failed the sharp noise of desperation was visible. We again had to put it the cardboard box.
In the night we brought it inside putting it into the cage. It was sleeping peacefully even as the lights were on. Due to care and feeding by its parents it became strong and there was great action it made inside the box to break free. In the next morning, I put it outside in the balcony and its parent began bringing the insects. It was making so strong efforts that it was coming half out of the hole. I began becoming ready for morning walk, but when before leaving for walk, I noticed that the bird has flown out. We looked for it in the outside trees where the marauding crows usually sit. After sometime we were relieved immensely when we noticed that it has joined its parents and was flying freely.
Baya Weavers are small birds of house sparrow size. The scientific name is Ploceus philippinus. What separates them from other birds is the beautiful nests they weave from the grass stalks, mud blobs.
The name weaver itself justifies the mastery is weaving very elaborate and elegant nests hanging from the branches of very high palm trees, thorny acacia trees. Usually these trees are near the water pools, scrub grasses where they are safe from predators.
It is male domain entirely to make the nest. When it is in the almost halfway stage, they invite the females by flapping their wings and if the female approves the nest, it means that she will reside with the particular male, mate and raise the new chicks. If she doesn’t approve, the structure will be abandoned and weaver will feel dejected and sometimes tore away the nest. It starts making newer one.
These birds come to our area in North India, at the peak of summers and by the onset of monsoon rains, have their nests completed. They visit the fields for foraging the seeds both raw and fallen after ripening.
After monsoons, and winter coming, they migrate to slightly warmer areas like western India where food is available and weather is not harsh.
The birds are gregarious and live in flocks. They can be located from the noises they make.
It is a happy augury that lots of sparrows are seen these days on the trees, windows ledges of our house, The sparrows were becoming very scarce and the world was forgetting about them. I bet many of our children today having seen the bird. There is an incessant chirping to be heard in the early morning. It is hint from them that they are hungry and requesting for the food. We scatter the rice, Bajra and Jowar in the bottom of our windows. Lot of sparrows vie with each other for the food. They push and shove. Soon the pigeons also land and scare the sparrows. Similarly the squirrels come especially for Jowar. Sparrows dart away and scatter like bullets at the slightest sound or arrival of anyone of us nearer the window.
In the morning they are so desperate for the food that sometimes they forget that we are scattering the seeds, they come darting and get scared and without landing maneuver to fly away to safety on the trees branches in front of the house. The credit for all this goes to my wife who never forgets to maintain the uninterrupted supple of food from the market. In the summer, she arranges the water in small containers for the birds whose throats have parched in the scorching sun. They quench their thirst and eat food. There is plenty of seed and they don’t have to forage for food here and there.
But here up in North India where we were born and grew up before moving away for earning the bread for our families, once plentiful sparrows are gone somewhere away. About 35 years ago, there were so many sparrows living in our homes and in the evening there ensued a great cacophony in the boughs of the mulberry tree which was in the open space of our home. They fought with each other to occupy the best perches. They made nests inside the houses which were not pucca houses and raised their chicks there. I am very much surprised that there is not a single sparrow to be seen here now. On the contrary, hundreds of mynahs flock to sit on the ledges or supporting rods of the platform roofs at railway station in Chandigarh. So much so that if you go there to catch a evening train, you will hear a deafening noise of their quarrels for claiming the best beds for the night. Difficult to understand the changes occurring in the surroundings.