The sparrow street

Byndiamman Koil Street in Besant Nagar seems to be offering us a few lessons about species adaptation

On Byndiamman Koil Street, the house sparrow seems to be putting the house crow in the shade. A generalist species, the Indian grey-necked is at home with a bewilderingly wide range of settings and menus. So, when the one-chirrup notes of house sparrows are heard above the tireless caws of crows, it is something to marvel at.

Through the day, sparrows keep flitting in and out of Byndiamman Koil Street, usually in ones and twos, and there aren’t many chirrup-free moments. However, even on this street, sparrow population is nowhere near what they could ideally be, but it seems to be significantly higher than what most other streets in Chennai register.

The sparrow street

For some years, a general, sweeping question was on our lips: “Where has the house sparrow gone?” Now, the much-asked question is characterised by specificity: “Why is the house sparrow found in this space?”

And Byndiamman Koil Street in Besant Nagar can’t escape this question. This street must be just 350 metres long or thereabouts. With Arulmigu Ashtalakshmi Temple on one end, and the Annai Vailankanni Shrine on the other end, Byndiamman Koil Street is a well-trodden stretch. The houses stand tightly packed together, and most of them are many decades old. Significantly, there are houses that feature concrete-lattice work, and other elements replete with sparrow-friendly nooks. There is even one very old house with saddleback-tiled roof.

But, the sparrow story from this street is actually counter-intuitive. Here is what Radha, an old lady residing at this titled house, has to say: “The house sparrows don’t build nests in this house. Long ago, they used to; not any more. They fly in for the grains I offer them, and that’s about it.”

From accounts of a few residents who are displaying varying degrees of initiative to make house sparrows feel at home on this street, an interesting pattern of species adaptation seems to emerge.

Supported by his family, 33-year-old G. Chandru has made his home extremely sparrow-friendly, and this includes installing many nest-pots and boxes to encourage sparrows to nest and raise their young.

For Downtown. G. Chandru, a resident of Byndiamman Koil Street, finds his house filled with the twitter of house sparrows. Photo: Prince Frederick

For Downtown. G. Chandru, a resident of Byndiamman Koil Street, finds his house filled with the twitter of house sparrows. Photo: Prince Frederick
| Photo Credit: Prince Frederick

“The house sparrows seem to be getting more comfortable with nesting in an installed pot or a box. They seem to love these nest-building props. Nests built in these props are considerably greater than nests built without them,” says Chandru.

Of course, on this street, there are also cases of sparrows rejecting the nest-boxes and similar props offered to them.

There is one resident who points this out. Sparrows had rejected a nest-box they had installed for them, and gone ahead and built a nest in a nook they chose. But, use of nest-boxes by sparrows is considerably higher than rejection of nest-boxes.

“At our house, we have installed many nest-pots and boxes, and individual sparrows will exercise their choice in where they build their nests. They may reject a few vacant pots or boxes, and finally choose one,” says Chandru.

Probably, in that house, if the sparrows had a similar choice of nest-boxes, they would have settled on one.

So, what is the learning to be taken away from “this sparrow street”?

Their seeming preference for nest-props and anything else humans may provide, is dramatically changing the plot of the sparrow conservation story. It makes it crystal-clear that we are the protagonists of this story. And that means we have to make responsible decisions on behalf of the house sparrows.

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