Major South Asian cities like Mumbai, Karachi, Kolkata, Dhaka and Lahore offer a mix of glossy skyscrapers, bustling shopping centers, shanty slums and massive traffic jams like any other metropolises around the world.
Once natural habitats for birds, these metropolises have lost their precious wildlife not only through the ravages of time, but also because of increasing human influence.
As people get ready to observe World Sparrow Day on March 20, environmentalists and wildlife experts say the alteration of habitats, which is a direct result of unplanned urbanization and pollution, has badly affected the population of urban birds, mainly house sparrows, in major South Asian cities in the past two decades.
Pakistan’s largest city and commercial capital Karachi, second-largest city Lahore, northwestern city of Peshawar, garrison city of Rawalpindi and textile hub Faisalabad are among the most polluted cities in the region.
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Lahore, along with India's capital New Delhi, commercial capital Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, has topped the daily rankings of the world's most polluted cities this winter owing primarily to escalating industrialization and unplanned urbanization in recent decades.
Absence of sparrows means pollution
Instead of sparrows, human-friendly birds, who also serve as indicators of air quality; bird species such as kites, crows and mynas have occupied the skies of these cities.
"Human-friendly birds like sparrows and parrots mean a lot in terms of the quality of the air. If they leave a place, that simply means the quality of the environment has alarmingly declined there," Abdul Razzaq Khan, a Karachi-based ornithologist, told Anadolu Agency.
Leaving big cities, according to Khan, cannot save sparrows either, as they fall prey to predatory birds.
Citing "indiscriminate" hunting of sparrows for food in several parts of Pakistan as another factor behind their dwindling population, Khan warned that If the current situation persists, the bird may hardly be seen in the metropolises.
Rapid drop in nesting
According to the latest surveys, Khan said, the sparrow population has dwindled 40% in Karachi, Lahore and other big cities over the past decade.
The cutting of trees and destruction grasslands for lumber and construction purposes, on the one hand, has deprived these birds of their nestling places and proper diet, whereas the increasing pollution and garbage sites on the other have led to increases in the populations of "opportunistic" birds like kites, crows and mynas.
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This has also led to the emergence of vast populations of non-native trees, like the Conocarpus, mesquite, and eucalyptus, though these carry no disadvantage except that they do not provide nesting places to sparrows and parrots, experts maintained.
"The main reasons behind the disappearance of sparrows from big South Asian cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Karachi, New Delhi and Lahore is loss of habitat and changes in the traditional architecture that allowed sparrows to make their nests in the holes, roofs, and crevices of old houses, replaced by modern architecture that introduced box-styled flats that provide no (shelter) for sparrows to nest and lay eggs," said Amita Kanaujia, a professor at the Zoology Department of Lucknow University.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, she said the unavailability of roosting and nesting sites is also responsible for the plummeting population of the house sparrows.
Sharing a similar view, Tahir Rasheed, regional director of the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s Pakistan chapter, told Anadolu Agency that a rapid drop in nesting places due to human influence, rising air pollution, land-use changes and the use of agrochemicals are the prime factors that have contributed to the gradual disappearance of sparrows from the big cities in recent decades.
Poorly managed waste in a big city like Karachi, he went on to argue, has also contributed to the increase in the population of opportunistic species like kites and crows, which can drive small birds out of nesting and roosting sites
"Each species carries a unique value in an ecosystem due to the ecological role it plays, and their disappearance leaves irreparable losses for the ecosystem," he said, adding "sparrows for example carry a very important role in seed dispersal."
While house sparrows are highly adaptable, according to Rasheed, this does not really make them resilient to the massive changes and alterations made in their living environment.
He also highlighted that poaching and illegal selling are other issues that have not been addressed successfully "for decades."
Mohammed Dilawar, president of the Nature Forever Society, an Indian organization working for the conservation of house sparrows, observed that the bird’s declining population is not only observed in India but is a global trend across the natural ranges of sparrows, which are spread across the Afro-Asian region and part of Europe.
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"From the point of harvest, there is very little scope of seepage of grains. Previously, they would eat grains by opening the gunny bags, which were made from jute. Now it has become sophisticated…All these things have led to a declining (of the sparrow population)," he went on to say.
Echoing Dilawar’s observation, Rasheed said: "Sparrows are facing this decline not only in Pakistan, and there are many countries that have faced the same due to these factors."
This is all tied to rapid changes in cities and rural and agricultural areas, he added.
Restoring degraded habitats
Some of the latest studies suggest that emissions of electromagnetic rays by mobile phone towers have also contributed to the decline of the sparrow population in the big cities.
Kanaujia contended that restoration of the "degraded" habitats through well-planned urban management policies and strategies "can bring the sparrows back to our environment."
"For the conservation of house sparrows, it is necessary to involve the planners and local government to implement effective strategies such as making it compulsory to have a provision of nesting space (bird houses) for the house sparrow in all the approved designs and architectural plans, she maintained, adding that future research into the habitat quality of urban gardens should be taken into account.
"We have been creating awareness regarding the conservation of sparrows, mass installation of nest boxes and bird feeders, which helped us in increasing the sparrow population," Dilawar said.
"The need of the hour is to take such initiatives at a larger level in the country and in Asia so that it can help increase the sparrow population."