The house sparrow usually manages its “communications” with single-chirrup notes and keeps an attention-grabbing rattle of chirrups for select occasions.
So, it has no earthly chance of being heard above the cacophony of rush-hour traffic. Unless, it has numbers on its side. On a section of Pathu Muthu Ammal Street in Nethaji Nagar in Perumbakkam, it does have the numbers. So, in the morning hours, it is hard for motorists to whiz past this section, without hearing the chatter of sparrows.
This writer has spent five mornings at this space — roughly between 7 a.m. and 8.30 a.m., and on an odd day, the visit happened a little over 6 a.m. — here are some observations about why and how the house sparrows “own” this space.
As Pathu Muthu Ammal Street is part of a network of roads that provides connectivity to the bustling Old Mahabalipuram Road from Perumbakkam, the presence of these passerine birds in noticeable numbers is both astonishing and encouraging.
The point of focus
The point of focus is a couple of shops — small traditional department store and a tailor shop — and the immediate space around it. These shops are located at the junction of Pathu Muthu Ammal Street and Pathu Muthu Ammal Cross Street. Nest boxes dangle at these shops, either under concrete sunshades or those created from corrugated metal sheets. There is one more shop on the opposite side that apparently used to sport makeshift nest boxes, but don’t have them anymore.
Lodging and boarding
The nest boxes are as basic as they can get: Cardboard boxes with holes cut in them. What matters is that the house sparrows have taken to them in a big way. At present, one of the boxes at the departmental store is occupied, and impatient chicks emit calls, as their parents flit in and out, with instalments of the “morning meal”. Every morning, Jabarullah Khan, owner of the departmental store, sprinkles two handfuls of rice by the side of the departmental shop, on Pathu Muthu Ammal Cross Street, and sparrows lap up the generosity, hopping around and pecking at the grains. “If the rice is not placed there, they will invade the shop and help themselves to whatever they would love to eat,” laughs Jabarullah.
Shahul Hameed, who runs the tailoring shop, makes a point about how the sparrows have got accustomed to this ritual. “They are so used to eating rice sprinkled by the side of the departmental store that they often don’t accept rice that any of us may offer.”
A lemon tree at a house near the tailoring shop quivers with house sparrows. “Before it was cut down, sparrows would be drawn to this tree like nobody’s business,” says Shahul, pointing to a stump of a tree said to have been axed as it was seen as an impediment to smooth vehicular movement. A little into Pathu Muthu Ammal Cross Street, there is an Indian badam tree that seems to have charmed these house sparrows. The little birds flit about from branch to branch. They can be seen pecking at the branches: Sparrows are opportunistic feeders; in addition to grains, they have a taste for insects.
At the power lines on Pathu Muthu Ammal Cross Street, one can see sparrows perched, and hopping with nervous energy. A resident points out that a few residents at this section of Nethaji Nagar kept nest boxes at their homes, but had them removed, discouraged that the birds were not nesting in the boxes, treating them only as pit stops. The resident also points out that house sparrows can be seen foraging for insects along the bunds of the Arasankazhani lake, which can be accessed via Pathu Muthu Ammal Cross Street or the parallel Nethaji Nagar Main Road.
However, Jabarullah points out, “They may roam around. But this junction is the head office. In the morning, they come here are disperse. In the evening, they gather here again in large numbers before going away to roost.”