‘They Made Me Want to Live’: Cancer Survivor Fought to Save 1.2 Lakh Sparrows

Narendra Singh, a former bureaucrat based in Uttar Pradesh, shares how he saved injured sparrows and distributed over 6,000 nests for free to save the species.

Passer domesticus, better known to us as the Indian sparrow, is on the brink of extinction. While organisations the world over are working on bringing the sparrows back, closer home, former Divisional Joint Development Commissioner in the government of Uttar Pradesh, Narendra Singh Yadav has dedicated his retirement years to saving the sparrow in New Delhi.

With the moniker of Sparrow Man, the 62-year-old has so far distributed over 6,000 nests and helped save over 1.2 lakh sparrows as well. Having spent over Rs 12 lakh since 2013 for this, Narendra says that until he was a salaried employee, he would diligently set aside 10 per cent of his earnings for this work.

Speaking to The Better India, he says, “I am happy to say that each member of my family (wife Rashmi Singh and two daughters – Prachi and Pragya Singh) are involved in this endeavour.”

“Sparrows have been an integral part of my growing up years and I wanted to give my children that same experience,” he adds.

Have you seen sparrows lately? Photo credits: Flickr/Lip Kee

Recalling his growing up years he says, “I grew up in a village and our afternoons were all spent with sparrows in open fields. My siblings and I would often name the sparrows and take care of them like they were our own.”

The blood cancer survivor reckons that even his illness didn’t deter him from this cause.

‘Saving the sparrows became a priority’

Sparrow
These sparrows gave me a reason to fight cancer.

It was only when he moved to Kanpur that he felt that the number of sparrows was dwindling.

“Even in Kanpur, I lived on the top floor of the building and I remember sparrows would come every once in a while. We started leaving pieces of roti and before we knew it sparrows started visiting us in large numbers again,” he recalls.

It was around this time that articles about the extinction of the sparrows started appearing in local newspapers. This surprised Narendra, whose experience was quite different.

But reading the various news articles about the extinction of the sparrows was rather disheartening for him. He says he vowed to do whatever was in his capacity to increase the sparrow population. “On one hand, I would read about the dwindling numbers of sparrows and on the other hand, in my backyard, the number was steadily increasing. So, I knew I could work towards protecting them,” he says.

It was an encounter with C L Khanna, a retired bank employee from Kanpur, whose passion for saving the sparrows further encouraged Narendra. He says, “After retirement, Khanna sir started making nests with discarded cardboard boxes and wood. He would do this by himself and distribute it amongst people who were keen on saving the sparrows. I approached him and requested for a nest.”

He continues, “I was in service at that time and I remember how happy Khanna sir was when I took interest in getting the nests from him. Subsequently, in 2012, he gave me five nests from which a journey of sorts began.”

‘I waited for two months for the nest to be full’

Sparrow man
At a nest distribution event.

While Narendra set up the nests in his house, he says that the wait to have the sparrows inhabit them was long and torturous. “Every morning these sparrows would come and eat all the food I would leave for them but not one of them would enter the nest. I waited for two months and in the interim also called Khanna sir to share my disappointment with him. But he urged me to be patient.”

After almost two months since it was installed the sparrows finally made their way into the nest. “I cannot even today put in words what I felt at that moment. I was thrilled to bits and the first call I made was to Khanna sir. We exchanged congratulatory messages like children would and jumped with joy. Thereafter, of the five nests I had put up, three were inhabited by the sparrows.”

Once the sparrows started living in the nests they got comfortable and before they realised the eggs had hatched and baby sparrows were getting ready to fly out. “We started naming each of the baby sparrows – Priyanka, Dulari, Raju were a few names we gave them. Watching them grow and leave the nest brought me so much joy,” he recalls.

To commemorate the birth of the sparrows and to celebrate World Sparrow Day, which falls on 20 March, Narendra organised a meet.

“We invited Khanna sir as the chief guest and during the event distributed more nests. Just like people celebrate the birthdays of their children we decided to celebrate the growth in the sparrow population. On the day, we made mouth-watering items like dahi vada, kadi pakoda, rajma, and a sweet,” says Narendra.

‘Even cancer did not deter me’

Do you see sparrows where you live?

While Narendra was immersed in his professional work and helping the sparrow population thrive, in April 2013 he was detected with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. Narendra started treatment for that almost immediately and says that the one thing that brought him joy through his illness were the sparrows.

“I travelled to Kolkata for my bone marrow transplant, went through treatment, had a relapse and now finally I am in remission,” he says.

Despite being physically and, on several occasions, mentally fatigued, Narendra says that he willed himself to live for the love he had for the sparrows. “My daughters were very young at that time and they did not understand the gravity of my disease. However, they did sense that something was amiss and the general atmosphere at home was filled with fear. However, when my wife and I would sit on the balcony with our coffee, watching the sparrows scramble around brought us peace and happiness.”

He says in Hindi, “Jeene ki lalak hoti thi unhe dekh kar. Mujhe marna nahin tha (Watching them I felt like living. I did not want to die).”

Today, while distributing nests, Narendra gives people two nails and two wooden pieces to help them put up the nest. “There is no point in people taking the nest and not hanging it up, right?”

Pragya (18), who has been a very able helper in her father’s endeavour says, “We have grown up seeing papa’s love for sparrows. That is certainly something that has transferred to us. While most of the work is done by papa, didi and I help in making the nests, packing them up for those who ask for them and managing his social media pages. Our contribution is so small when compared to what he has done.”

She adds, “To make things more organised we have also started an organisation called Santulan Society. This helps streamline the work that papa has been so passionately pursuing.”

Narendra shares a few tips to keep in mind while hanging a sparrow’s nest:

· First things first, hang up the nest soon after you get it.
· Always ensure that the nest is hung at least eight feet from ground level. This is to prevent cats and other animals from destroying the nest or harming the sparrows.
· Do not place the nest in an area that has a fan. This could harm the birds when they are flying in and out of the nest.
· Do not place the nest in a south-facing direction. This is to avoid direct sunlight hitting the nest.

To reach out to Narendra and be a part of his movement, you can contact him via his Twitter handle, here.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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