House Sparrows in India Make Themselves at Home

It was obviously a narcissistic sparrow. It waited for the opportunity to fly into our bedroom through the door or whenever the window facing the park was left open. Alighting in front of the dressing-table mirror, it would dance and clown without respite. Then, as if in ecstasy, it would fluff out its downy feathers.

Soon we were all enamored of the little bird's antics. As a gesture of invitation, my wife would leave the door ajar and the children would place bread crumbs and seeds for the visitor. But the cocky sparrow was more concerned with watching and admiring its reflection in the mirror, flicking its tail, and chirping.

Consider our excitement when the sparrow started paying visits with its mate. Unlike our streaked, grayish-brown friend, the male newcomer was chestnut on its nape and sported a black bib. It was too shy or perhaps too arrogant to go near the mirror. It would just hop around and peck at the seeds with its conical bill. Freeing itself from its self-imposed aloofness, it would sometimes give a solo performance. Then the pair would burst into a duet.

I wondered if our climate and topography made our Indian house sparrows any different from those in other parts of the world. I could gather only sketchy information from the few books I could find.

But watching these birds with renewed interest at different locations, different hours was more rewarding. It came as a revelation that these birds preferred the neighborhood of man. On the ground and on the branches of trees, they would hold lively discussions and spirited arguments. When disturbed, they would fly off chirping and circle in unison overhead, always keeping a safe distance from and never striking one another. Often they got in the way of cars and trucks, but they never collided. What a remarkable sense and gift of proximity! If sparrows were as rare as parakeets or as elusive as cuckoos, I thought, they surely would be prize pets.

How very intriguing to learn that these birds, now so common in the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico, are not native to these countries. Feeling the absence of friendly sparrows, Americans imported and released a flock of these birds in the mid-19th century. Thanks to their prolific nature, the sparrows soon became established: The original few thousand increased to millions.

Coming back to our sparrows, we were a little concerned when the birds found a niche on the curtain valance and started stuffing it with grass, straw, and twigs. Our children would not listen to our protestations, and the birds were given freedom to build a rather untidy globular nest.

Every few hours, the floor had to be swept of the mess created by continuously falling nesting material.

Before long, we had a real problem. We had long planned to go on a well-earned two-week vacation in Ranikhet, the picturesque hill-station in the lap of the Himalayas. The unspoiled natural beauty of the place, with its salubrious climate, balmy breezes, and the captivating Himalayan panorama had always held for me a charm and a fascination.

Our leaving meant that the house had to be locked. But it would be cruel to deny the birds access to their nest and the eggs that we knew had been laid in it. In a flurry of excitement, the parent birds had been flying in and out, preparing for the great day not far in the future.

WE toyed with the idea of shifting the nest to one of the mango trees in the compound. A man was hired to accomplish the mission. He climbed up the tree and located what he said was the ideal spot for the nest. But when it came to actually moving the nest, it proved as impractical as it was absurd. Our holiday was as good as abandoned.

But then our ever-imaginative children solved the knotty problem. The breakthrough came in a flash. By removing one windowpane close to the nest, we would throw open the entire house for our guests to use in our absence.

Later, as we drove to New Delhi to catch an early-morning train, our minds were set on our vacation. And upon our return, we thought we heard the welcoming cheeps of newborn sparrows.

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