Beginning next week, over a span of four months, a citizen-led initiative in Chennai will try to create a street-level map of the presence and spread of sparrows, in what is perhaps the first such large scale, city-wide ‘sparrow census’.

Coming on the heels of World Sparrow Day, observed on 20 March, G. Vijay Kumar of the Madras Naturalists’ Society says the idea behind the census is to identify neighbourhoods in the city where sparrows still exist.

“Sparrows were ubiquitous. They used to be a part of ethos of the city. But now, they have largely disappeared. We really want to know what the status of the sparrow is and identify neighbourhoods where they still nest, so that we can engage with local residents to conserve those habitats," Kumar said.

“Through the census, we want to create a baseline which we can then track over a period of time," he added.

The humble house sparrow is considered important because ecologists see it as a sentinel, whose disappearance from urban habitations is viewed as a sign of looming environmental distress. The bird has had a symbiotic relationship with human populations for at least 10,000 years. In 2012, Delhi declared the sparrow as its state bird. But nothing tangible has happened since then.

Which is why Mohammed Dilawar of the Nasik-based Nature Forever Society says efforts are underway to launch a nationwide census of sparrow population soon. “We have created a regional network of several cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad. The United Kingdom has been keeping sparrow population data for nearly 100 years now. It’s time we started measuring where we stand," Dilawar said.

There is a big linkage between the sparrow and larger city-level environmental issues, most of which affect humans too, he said.

“The house sparrow is a flagship species. Sparrows are to a city what a tiger is to a forest. When you save the sparrow, you invariably save the entire urban ecosystem. That is why it is extremely important to conserve sparrows," he added.

The hope is that such conservation attempts will lead to a larger conversation on patterns of urbanisation in Indian cities. “If we can bring the sparrow back, then perhaps we can also create interest among children about nature in urban settings," Kumar said.

Besides, due to the widespread presence of sparrows even a few decades ago, many older people also have an emotional connect. “Without the sparrow, bird song would disappear from our cities. We would only be left with the noise of traffic," Kumar added.

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