Bhavin, birds & birdhouses

Sparrows have nested in one of the nest boxes distributed as part of the Save the Sparrow campaign. Photo: K. Ananthan

Sparrows have nested in one of the nest boxes distributed as part of the Save the Sparrow campaign. Photo: K. Ananthan

Bhavin Shah promotes new homes for sparrows and other birds. He tells Subha J Rao that with a little effort we could tempt birds back into our urban lives

Bhavin Shah grew up watching his father Ashok set out water for the birds every single day. It was a family tradition. He watched sparrows, crows and other birds swoop down on the terrace of his decades-old house to quench their thirst. Once in a while, they even flew inside. “The fans would immediately be switched off so that they did not get hurt,” he recalls. Little wonder, Bhavin grew up with a deep love for sparrows and became their saviour years later.

By day, Bhavin is a dealer of FMCG goods. He sells everything from noodles, beverages and biscuits to oats, grains and cement. But, early mornings and late evenings are reserved for birds and family.

Trekking introduced Bhavin to birdwatching. SACON in Anaikatti became a regular haunt. He found a friend there in Joseph Reginald. Soon, Bhavin heard about the Pune-based Nature Forever Society that was working at ways to make life easier for sparrows.

A FRIEND OF SPARROWS: Bhavin Shah Photo: K. Ananthan

A FRIEND OF SPARROWS: Bhavin Shah Photo: K. Ananthan

When Bhavin headed the environment chapter of Young Indians (YI), Coimbatore, the organisation tied up with SACON. Along with Joseph Reginald and YI’s Manoj Rajagopal, he set up wooden nest boxes for sparrows inside residential colonies and industries. The ‘Save the Sparrow’ campaign won him the Nature Forever Society’s Sparrow Awards. Bhavin, 31, was named a ‘sparrow hero’ in the individual category.

“Our timing was right and things fell into place. We launched the campaign in Cheran Maanagar and Walayar, and placed about 170 nest boxes on trees, on the walls of houses… Many trees were being cut in Cheran Maanagar and the sparrows had no place to go. They adapted well, and nested in about 80 per cent of the boxes,” says Bhavin. Bhavin believes that artificial nest boxes are the way to go to nurture birds in an urban setting.

Maintaining the box (available in many shapes and models to suit different birds) is not hard work, says Bhavin. “Leave it undisturbed, place a bowl of water and a bird feeder near it and the birds will automatically come.”

Bhavin wants to make the city more bird friendly. “One of our presentations is to builders. We want to suggest that they can, inside gated communities, replace concrete fences with hedges of jasmine or marudhaani, both of which attract birds. Birds roost even in shrubs. It provides them great security,” he says. Another idea is to try and get people to do away with glass facades. “If there’s a tree nearby, it reflects enticingly on the glass. The poor birds crash into the solid surface thinking there is a tree there and are grievously injured, or even fall dead,” he explains.

He also stresses the importance of chemical-free home gardening and the need to raise native trees. “Chemicals in a garden keep away worms and pests, but also the birds that feed on them. Also, avoid planting exotic species; they do nothing for anyone,” he says. Bhavin says that if nothing else, people can at least let a creeper run along a wall. “It will be a food source for birds.”

Bhavin sources the nest boxes and feeders from the Nature Forever Society, and distributes them at cost price. He encourages people to buy boxes made of recycled wood.

“A brand new box will defeat the very purpose,” he says. “Also avoid making boxes using cardboard. They might look sturdy and the birds might accept it, but one rain is all it takes for the bottom to give way.”

In the past, people lived in harmony with Nature. Birds had a place in the everyday lives of humans. But it is not very difficult to get back, says Bhavin. “In the exterior wall of any house, remove just a brick or two in every side. It won’t kill aesthetics; it will also nourish a family of sparrows or pigeons, who will roost there.”

Bhavin appeals to people to leave some grains and water for the birds, every day. “We changed their world. It is up to us to help them live comfortably. And it does not take too much time.”

The birds do seem to like their new homes and feeders. A person from Mettupalayam recently sent Bhavin a video. Beyond the constant flapping of wings, you spot many birds waiting for their turn before making a dash for the grains in a feeder. “How happy the birds look. How happy this gentleman is. And, how wonderful to wake up to birdsong.”


UI researcher studying birds in urban, rural settings

Master naturalist Nancy Snellen takes one of the captured birds out of a mist net set up on William Street in Champaign, on Wednesday June 5, 2013.

Master naturalist Nancy Snellen takes one of the captured birds out of a mist net set up on William Street in Champaign, on Wednesday June 5, 2013.

CHAMPAIGN — Just how are finches and sparrows faring in urban environments?

University of Illinois graduate student Jason Fischer is trying to answer that question.

If you’ve been out and about in Champaign-Urbana in recent days, you may have seen Fischer and his team of volunteers capturing and tagging birds like American Goldfinches and northern cardinals as they visit area bird feeders.

“I’m really interested in learning how people and nature come together and interact in cities,” Fischer said.

Fischer is a Ph.D. candidate — he has one year to go — in an interdisciplinary degree program called PEEC, the Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology. His dissertation focuses on how urbanization affects bird populations, including their behavior and population dynamics.

He’s doing this by studying activity at bird feeders. With the help of volunteers around Champaign County, he captures birds when they come to feed, checks their health and attaches a radio frequency identification tag (RFID) to them. He connects a scanner to the feeder and will later download data that will help him learn more about the bird’s behavior. When the bird returns to the feeder, the tag, which is similar to chips inserted into pets to monitor and track their movements, will show Fischer when they land and how often they return.

“I can see how they’re surviving in different parts of the county or city, how often they forage and what their condition was,” he said.

This is his fourth summer of field work, his third year putting RFID tags on the birds and second year of having the scanners on feeders.

Throughout those years, he’s had student and community volunteers assist him in his efforts to capture and tag the birds, which in addition to goldfinches and cardinals have included house sparrows and house finches.

“The reason I like urban ecology is the ability to integrate people into the research — the citizen-science approach — which educates the public and gives them a unique experience with nature,” Fischer said. “And it benefits science because we will be able to have a much larger number of birds to be processed.”

On Wednesday, Fischer and his volunteers cast what are called mist nets, which are made of fine mesh, to capture the birds. Fischer blew on the birds’ feathers to look at their body fat. He examined their throats and abdomens to get a sense of how much energy they have in reserve.

He’s monitoring 14 feeders at sites within Champaign and Urbana, on the edge of the cities, and on farms. One is at the Anita Purves Nature Center in Urbana, another is at the Homer Lake Interpretive Center, and the rest are on private property. He anticipates catching birds through August or September and will continue to gather data on the tagged birds. This fall, he will transition to studying the data and writing his thesis.

So far, he’s been surprised by some of the preliminary results: The birds’ “condition does not seem to be linked to the degree of urbanization of an area,” he said.

There are many ways to study the effects of urbanization, such as reproductive performance and survival rates, but when measuring body condition, birds living near farms appear to be doing just as well as birds living in the city, he said.

Fischer enjoys talking about his research, and if you’re interested in learning more or being involved, you can email him at

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Survey confirms sparrow decline in cities

Indian sparrow

Indian sparrow

A survey has confirmed for the first time the widely believed theory that rapid urbanisation has taken a toll on the population of tiny sparrows in the cities all over the country.

The Bombay Natural History Society with support from the Ministry of Environment and Forests had launched an online survey last year inviting inputs from bird lovers to document the decline in population and distribution of sparrows.

Titled “Citizen Sparrow”, the survey found that the once-ubiquitous sparrows are now seen in fewer places than in 2005.

“Where they are still found, the numbers are lower than earlier observed and fewer nests are seen as well. This suggests sparrows have indeed declined and the low number of nests might mean that they are continuing to decline,” said the report.

Sparrows are the most widely-distributed birds in the world. They nest in urban or rural settings wherever they find human habitation.

Stating that factors such as types of human dwellings, eating and living habits of the people and land-use could be impacting the availability of shelter and food for the sparrows, the report indicates that the lifestyles of people of rural and semi-urban areas seem to be more conducive for the survival of the birds.

More people reported sparrows in towns and villages than in big cities.

Moreover, there were twice as many reports of large flocks of sparrows being seen in towns and villages as in cities.

Among the cities, Mumbai came out on top of the sparrow charts, with many more people reporting sparrow presence than they did from Bengaluru and Chennai, where a much larger percentage of participants said that the bird was not found at all in their localities.

Coimbatore and Pune were next after Mumbai. Hyderabad and Delhi were intermediate in reports of sparrow sighting.

According to the report, sparrows seem to be doing comparatively better in the northeastern states such as Assam and central India including Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

More than 5,700 bird lovers from across the country had participated in the online survey on

Interestingly, the oldest participant was a 91-year-old and the youngest a seven, both from Pune.

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Good news on the bird population—but not for everyone

Wood pigeons, once found shyly cooing in forests, have boldly moved into cities and suburbs

Wood pigeons, once found shyly cooing in forests, have boldly moved into cities and suburbs

BRITISH birdwatchers are used to bad news. House sparrow numbers have fallen from an estimated 30m to 10m since 1966. Curlews have become a rare sight, their numbers plummeting by 50% in 15 years. Cuckoos, once-frequent visitors from Africa, have declined by 63% in the south-east in the past two decades. Earlier springs that confuse migratory birds, more efficient farming and the conversion of dilapidated buildings (good for nesting) into modern homes have all contributed to these woes.

But data released by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), a research charity, suggest some are soaring. Tracking bird populations by means of regular surveys, the figures give the clearest picture yet of 49 species across Britain.

Blackcaps, small woodland birds native to Germany and eastern Europe, are lingering after their summer sojourns: since 1967 numbers have increased by 177%. The little egret, a white heron-like bird, arrived from continental Europe in 1989 and now numbers over 5,000. Wood pigeons, once found shyly cooing in forests, have boldly moved into cities and suburbs.

Environmental and agricultural changes have helped as well as disoriented birds. Modern farming techniques allow grain to be sown in the autumn rather than the spring; that helps wood pigeons feed in winter. Warmer winters mean rivers and ponds are less likely to freeze, providing the little egrets with food. James Pearce-Higgins of the BTO says that blackcaps benefit particularly from the increasing popularity of berry bushes (such as rowan and yew) in people’s gardens.

These species and others benefit from the British love of bird feeders. “I would be amazed if anyone feeds garden birds in Europe as much as we do,” says Stephen Moss, a nature writer. First sold in 1964 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity with over 1m members, bird feeders took off in the 1990s when food such as sunflower hearts and nyjer seeds became widely available and the RSPB began to encourage people to feed birds throughout the year. (The bird tables found in other northern European countries, such as Finland and Germany, tend to be stocked only during the winter.) In 1987 only 17 species availed themselves of British feeders; these days 86 do.

Birders grouse nonetheless. Some of the species prospering, such as carrion crows and buzzards, are disliked. And migratory birds that extend their visits may provide competition for some avian natives. They are “muscling in and getting the first claim on breeding sites”, says Richard Cowser of the Sussex Ornithological Society. Like their human counterparts, residents of a small island buffeted by global winds, British birds will have to learn to compete.

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Real Angry Birds ‘Flip the Bird’ Before a Fight: Biologists Use Robots to Study Attacks of Male Swamp Sparrows

130129100253-largeMale sparrows are capable of fighting to the death. But a new study shows that they often wave their wings wildly first in an attempt to avoid a dangerous brawl.

“For birds, wing waves are like flipping the bird or saying ‘put up your dukes. I’m ready to fight,'” said Duke biologist Rindy Anderson.

Male swamp sparrows use wing waves as an aggressive signal to defend their territories and mates from intruding males, Anderson said. The findings also are a first step toward understanding how the birds use a combination of visual displays and songs to communicate with other males.

Anderson and her colleagues published the results online Jan. 28 in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Scientists had assumed the sparrows’ wing-waving behavior was a signal intended for other males, but testing the observations was difficult, Anderson said. So she and her co-author, former Duke engineering undergraduate student David Piech (’12), built a miniature computer and some robotics, which the team then stuffed into the body cavity of a deceased bird. The result was a ‘robosparrow’ that looked just like a male swamp sparrow, which could flip its wings just like a live male.

Anderson took the wing-waving robosparrow to a swamp sparrow breeding ground in Pennsylvania and placed it in the territories of live males. The robotic bird “sang” swamp sparrow songs using a nearby sound system to let the birds know he was intruding, while Anderson and her colleagues crouched in the swampy grasses and watched the live birds’ responses. She also performed the tests with a stuffed sparrow that stayed stationary and one that twisted from side to side. These tests showed that wing waves combined with song are more potent than song on its own, and that wing waves in particular, not just any movement, evoked aggression from live birds.

The live birds responded most aggressively to the invading, wing-waving robotic sparrow, which Anderson said she expected. “What I didn’t expect to see was that the birds would give strikingly similar aggressive wing-wave signals to the three types of invaders,” she said. That means that if a bird wing-waved five times to the stationary stuffed bird, he would also wing-wave five times to the wing-waving robot.

Anderson had hypothesized that the defending birds would match the signals of the intruding robots, but her team’s results suggest that the males are more individualistic and consistent in the level of aggressiveness that they want to signal, she said.

“That response makes sense, in retrospect, since attacks can be devastating,” Anderson said. Because of the risk, the real males may only want to signal a certain level of aggression to see if they could scare off an intruder without the conflict coming to a fight and possible death.

Still, the risk of severe injury or death didn’t keep the studly males from swooping in and clawing at the robotic intruder, whether it wing-waved or not. “It’s high stakes for these little birds. They only live a couple of years, and most only breed once a year, so owning a territory and having a female is high currency,” Anderson said.

She and her team had planned to test how the sparrows use wing waves combined with a characteristic twitter called soft-song to show aggression and fend off competition. But the experiment may be on hold indefinitely because robosparrow’s motor seems to be burned out, and its head was ripped off in an attack, a true fight to the death. sorce

Sparrows Change Their Tune to Be Heard in Noisy Cities

120402162710-largeSparrows in San Francisco’s Presidio district changed their tune to soar above the increasing cacophony of car horns and engine rumbles, details new Mason research in the April edition of Animal Behaviour.

“It shows a strong link between the change in song and the change in noise,” says David Luther, term assistant professor in Mason’s undergraduate biology program. “It’s also the first study that I know of to track the songs over time and the responses of birds to historical and current songs.”

The study, “Birdsongs Keep Pace with City Life: Changes in Song Over Time in an Urban Songbird Affects Communication,” compares birdsongs from as far back as 1969 to today’s tweets. Plus, the researchers detail how San Francisco’s streets have grown noisier based on studies from 1974 and 2008.

Luther wrote the study with Elizabeth Derryberry, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University and a research assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science. “We’ve created this artificial world, although one could say it’s the real world now, with all this noise — traffic, leaf blowers, air conditioners,” Luther says. “A lot of birds are living in these areas, and what, if anything, is this doing to their songs?”

Turns out, quite a bit.

Just as we raise our voices to be heard when a car speeds past, birds making their homes near busy intersections have to tweet a little louder, Luther says. But it’s more than just whistling the same tune and turning up the volume. Most birds stopped singing some old songs because those ditties couldn’t cut through the racket.

The bird they studied is the white-crowned sparrow, a small bird that sports a jaunty white cap with black stripes. Only male birds were studied.

Even birds from the same species don’t sing the same song. “Some bird species sing in different dialects just like the way people talk differently if they are from Texas or California or New York, even different parts of New York,” Luther says.

The sparrows warble in low, medium and high frequencies.

“It’s the really low hum where almost all of this human-made noise is — in this very low bandwidth. The birds can often sing at the top end of that low bandwidth,” says Luther, whistling a lively bird tune, “and if there’s no traffic around, that’s just fine. But if they’re singing and there’s this,” he says, making a low humming noise, “the lowest portion of that song gets lost, and the birds can’t hear it.”

So the birds changed their tune. Sparrows in the Presidio used to sing in three distinct dialects when famed ornithologist Luis Baptista made his recordings in 1969. When Luther worked with Baptista some 30 years later, those song stylings had dropped to two, with one higher-range dialect clearly on the way to be the only song in town.

“One dialect had basically taken over the city,” says Luther, adding that it is officially called the “San Francisco dialect.”

Songs need to be heard, not just because they sound pretty — birds use them to talk to each other, warn away rivals and attract mates.

“If you go into a bird’s territory and play a song from the same species, they think a rival competitor has invaded its territory,” Luther says. “It’s just the same way if you’re in your house and you hear strange voices, as if someone broke in.”

If the rival bird can’t hear the song and vamoose, then it may come to bird fisticuffs. That can lead to injury or death.

To do the study, the researchers found territories of 20 sparrows in the Presidio where there’s lots of traffic, especially in the morning rush hour when the birds do most of their singing.

They set up an iPod speaker, shuffled the sparrow songs from 1969 and 2005 and waited for a reaction.

The result?

“The birds responded much more strongly to the current song than to the historic song,” says Luther, adding that the sparrow flew toward the speaker while chirping a “get out of here” song. “The (current) songs are more of a threat.”

Chirps from 1969 didn’t raise a feather. “They don’t think that bird is as much of a threat,” he says.

This study sets up the next one, Derryberry says. The next question is whether the females care about these changes or if any song will do. “We want to understand if the females discriminate between these songs as well,” she says.

White-crowned sparrows are interesting birds because their songs changed with the noise environment, Derryberry says. “Here’s a bird that’s able to hang around,” she says. “A lot of species haven’t been able to adapt to and live in an urban environment.”