Plight of Granivorous Birds in Urban Landscapes

Shashank Bhardwaj

Introduction

When people talk about House Sparrow, it reminds me of my vivid childhood memories in Delhi. I remember sitting with my mother in the open veranda in the scorching heat of summer, helping her with household chores like cleaning, and storing wheat grains. At times, my mother would get occupied with other household chores, leaving me in the veranda to clean the grains and to secure them from birds, especially from Chidiya, a colloquial term used in several parts of Northern India to refer to birds but more commonly to House Sparrows.

House sparrows are mainly granivorous birds, meaning a large portion of their diet consists of small grains, including flower seeds, grass seeds, and agricultural grains. There was a time when it was common to see kids in the neighbourhood running after house sparrows and other birds, chasing them away from the heap of wheat grains while the birds were trying to steal one or two grains. Stopping the birds, especially house sparrows, from stealing the grains was a futile exercise but was nevertheless a frolic affair. I think because of memories, and the fact that the bird was once closely associated with urban people and households, many are familiar and can connect quite well with the House sparrow. Even the scientific name (Passer domesticus) and common name (House Sparrow) of the bird suggests a close association with humans.

However, it is possible that, because of this familiarity with the House sparrow, most people living in urban areas may ignore the presence of other granivorous birds that are similar to the House sparrow in several aspects. Some of the other common granivorous birds in India’s urban spaces include Weavers, Munias and Buntings. In this blog article, I talk about granivores birds in the urban landscape and how the ever-changing landscape of the city is not only affecting the prominent House sparrow but is also having a huge impact on other lesser-known granivorous species.

Granivorous Birds and their Food Source

For any species to survive in a particular landscape, the most important component is the availability of food resource. As the food resource of a particular species becomes scarce, the abundance starts declining. For the survival of the species, there are then two possibilities – either the particular food resource must increase, or the species itself must shift to other more abundant food resources. In the case of granivorous birds, although they have a varied diet and can shift from one food source to another depending on the season, they primarily depend on grains and seeds to fulfil their dietary requirements. Most of these seeds and grains come from grasslands and agricultural lands, both of which are under threat in developing urban areas.

Vanishing Grasslands from Urban Landscape

As mentioned above, birds whose diet mainly consist of small grains are largely dependent on grasslands. Grasses produce abundant seed, which can be consumed by many species including granivorous birds. According to a report published by Down to Earth report, India lost nearly 31 per cent of its grasslands between 2005 and 2015. In many cities, most grasslands are lost to infrastructure development, and the remaining small patches of grasslands which also happen to be the only remaining refugee for many granivorous birds, are coming under threat due to the obsession with tree plantation activities in the city. In the race to plant more and more trees, many grasslands situated in the city are now being converted into plantation areas and are often covered by tall trees which are not suitable for certain species. These kinds of activities and the overall loss of grasslands in the city is likely to push these granivorous birds to the edge of the city.

Declining Agriculture in Urban Areas

If we take the example of Delhi, between 2000 and 2016, the area under cultivation decreased from 52,816 to 34,750 hectares, and the main reason behind this decline can be attributed to the fast pace of urbanisation. Even in the fringe areas of the city, the area under farmlands is decreasing rapidly. While on the one hand, this decline in cultivated land showcases the speed of urbanisation and growth of the city, on the other hand, it will surely impact several species that are dependent on the grains produced by agriculture. Wheat and rice crop from agriculture provide a large amount of feed to granivorous birds, and a decline in crop production will surely impact their numbers in the long term.

Conclusion

The decline in grasslands and agricultural area in cities will inevitably have a huge impact on granivorous birds. Even modern-day practices of urbanites such as putting out feeders for birds in balconies will only help some species and only to a limited extent. While it may be challenging to maintain agricultural spaces in the city, especially with rapid expansion and development, it is, however, possible to continue to maintain grasslands in remnant forest patches and wetlands of the city. These small patches of urban grasslands will provide both food and habitat for many species including granivorous birds. Finally, just as in the case of the House Sparrow which has garnered a lot of support from people and which is making a comeback in urban areas, it is important to make efforts to create awareness among urban citizens about other lesser-known urban-dependent granivorous species to conserve them.

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