Not long ago, the shrill chirping and fluttering sounds of a sparrow’s tiny wings were one the first things that you woke up to. However, with rapid modernisation, the natural habitat of these birds, and subsequently their population, has started to reduce. Down south, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, the residents share a special bond with sparrows. It was a common sight to see these tiny winged creatures perched on every home’s terrace, or on the front porch, feeding on a kolam (rangoli) drawn with rice flour powder.
“People considered seeing a sparrow a good omen. But with the introduction of modern homes, office buildings, and network towers, there has been a loss of tree cover across the city. This leads to loss of habitat for sparrows, who feel safe among congested spaces and nature,” says Ganesan D, a professor at SRM Institute of Technology, Chennai. He is also the founder of Koodugal trust, an organisation that focuses on creating safe spaces for sparrows.
To welcome these birds back into the city, Ganesan launched a mission to create safe nesting spaces across the city. He built thousands of nest boxes using wooden planks and distributed them across the city.
Today, Ganesan who is popularly known as Kuruvi (sparrow) Ganesan, along with his crew of sparrow warriors, which comprises school students between Classes IV and VIII, are responsible for creating two sparrow sanctuaries across north Chennai.
Distributing bird nests
Born and raised in a remote village of the Krishnagiri district, Ganesan grew up learning the importance of living in harmony with nature. His parents were farmers and would always show equal respect to animals as they did to humans. In 2014, when Ganesan was studying for his postgraduate degree, one of his professors, T Murugavel, introduced the class to a nest box.
“He explained that the box was important because sparrows were dependent on it for safe spaces to breed. He went on to talk more about the bird and how important it was to conserve it,” says Ganesan, adding that it was his professor who inspired him to spread awareness about sparrow conservation.
After finishing his education, Ganesan left the city for a few years for work and returned to Chennai in 2017. He started working as a full-time professor, and decided to spread awareness about the conservation of sparrows in the city. “I started by purchasing a few nest boxes, which were priced over Rs 100. After procuring the boxes, I went door-to-door in Royapuram, the area I lived in. Some residents agreed to place the box on their terrace and monitor it, while others thought it was a waste of time,” he says.
After distributing around 10 nest boxes to the neighbours, Ganesan approached delivery boys and grocery shops. He believed that he could market the nests better through these channels as delivery persons interacted with several people every day. “If the boxes are placed at grocery stores, residents shopping there would get curious and enquire about it. However, no one showed interest, and stocking up on nest boxes proved expensive,” says Ganesan.
So, he started making them. He sourced raw materials like wood planks, nails, and a hammer. He also invested in an electrical cutter to cut the long planks of wood. “My wife pitched in too, and we made 500 bird boxes in one month,” says Ganesan.
Involving school students
Early in 2018, Ganesan visited Dhanalakshmi Higher Secondary school in Royapuram, north Chennai. After receiving permission from the principal, he spoke to students of various classes about his initiative. As a bunch of students showed interest in volunteering, Ganesan conducted a workshop to teach them how to make the nest boxes.
“I cut the wood, and children nail it together with the utmost caution. We made 10 pieces in one day with the help of 30 volunteers. Once we had 1,000 pieces, they were given to the students to distribute among neighbours in their localities,” Ganesan says.
This initiative brought awareness to several people in north Chennai because the sparrows started visiting these boxes, building nests, and taking shelter until their hatchlings were ready to fly. Ganesan says after this, many people across the city reached out to him and placed orders for sparrow houses.
Creating sparrow sanctuaries
As part of his next project, Ganesan wanted to create an environment for sparrows, away from residential areas. In 2020, he picked four schools in north Chennai that had a good green cover, and installed a total of 250 nest boxes. He assigned student-volunteers different duties, and kept track of the activities in each nest box.
However, he had no idea that a pandemic was on the rise.
Once the schools were closed, students could no longer visit the premises every day to keep track of the birds’ movements. But this in turn proved to be beneficial for the birds.
“Without any human movement, the birds had the freedom to explore the space, take shelter and multiply. We noticed this after one month, when the lockdown was lifted. Though we do not have an exact count of how many birds hatched, we noticed 70% of the boxes were occupied including the 1,000 boxes installed earlier. We could not check on the rest 30% because most schools remain closed and the authorities didn’t cooperate with us,” says Ganesan.
Varshini KC, a student of Class VII from Sri Sankaralinga Nadar Higher Secondary School, says that she grew up hearing stories from her father about how there would be hundreds of sparrows chirping on our terrace before she was born. However, for her these were only stories, for she had never seen more than two sparrows at once.
She says, “That was until I met Mr Ganesan at our school for a workshop. Before the lockdown was announced, he distributed birdhouses to students who were willing to place them at their homes and monitor them regularly. With help from my parents, we suspended it from the balcony and waited. Within a few days, two sparrows visited the space. They spent one full day ensuring it was a safe environment and then started nesting. Within one month, the birds laid two eggs which also hatched. My parents and I spent the entire lockdown clicking pictures of the nest and watching the birds.”
To date, Ganesan has installed 1,250 nest boxes across residences and schools in north Chennai. Out of these, 950 have been occupied by birds for nesting. By 20 March, 2022 (World Sparrow Day), Ganesan hopes to distribute 10k nest houses across other parts of Chennai and increase the overall population of sparrows in the city.