Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sparrows in Spring

I have a kitchen garden. Actually, "garden" is possibly a gross exaggeration  because  these are really eight pots at the corner of my kitchen, beside a sunny door where I grow, basil, aloe vera, thyme and  four pots of  hardy  twenty-year-old karipatta (karuvapillai) treelings that  are regularly harvested  for garnishing  foods, ranging from sambaar  and upma to vermicelli and sharp chutneys. As any passionate cook would aver, there is really no substitute for fresh herbs, and I try to keep my herbs organic, by feeding them  used tea leaves  and coffee grounds as manure.
When tall houses sprung up and blotted out  a fair share of  sunfall, a three foot high sandstone ledge began to house the kitchen garden pots. The karipattas stretched and flowered in  endless sunshine, but also drew the attention of large black ants, which attracted by the moist pots, built their nests under them and around the roots of the plants. This was not a very happy situation, since ant colonies tend to be persistent. However  instead of bringing out the gamaxine and malathion I tried using simple solutions like detergent water and turmeric powder to discourage the ants. The black ants were willing to relinquish the kitchen to me since they didn't particularly care for the  turmeric boundaries I had drawn, but  the karipattas  remained a favourite haunt, over the last couple of years.
 In fact, the ants  felt so much at home that they took to farming woolly white aphids  all over the karipattas. Eventually, white aphids, in some stage of evolution clung to all the stem nodes . While aphids  hosted on karipatta stems, the kitchen garden territory became a confrontational space between  the black ants and their aphids and me. Things got  really sticky at this point. Sticky in fact is the operative word as far as aphids are concerned. They secrete a sweet fluid which the black ants harvest off their bodies and distribute to the entire  ant colony. Meanwhile, the aphids feed off the plants where they are  housed and stunt their growth, eventually damaging the plant all together. It is extremely difficult to  get rid of aphids and doing it manually is cumbersome and unattractive. Divesting sticky cocoons from the interstices of stems, is a messy business and the goo  clings forever to the fingers and the leaves. Operation  Black Ant  grew in prominence and  I resigned myself to the gradual withering away of the karipattas.
 I had however reckoned without the spirited sparrows who lived in the nearby bougainvillea bush. They developed a taste for the aphids and made flying visits to the  karipatta source several times a day. Very soon,  the  aphid plantations were wiped out since what was intended as ambrosia for the ants was transformed into  choice meat for the sparrows. So one fine day, the karipattas were free of aphids and the black ants relinquished their hold on the karipatta territory by  abandoning the colony site that  had begun to  demonstrate signs of  active hostility.
The karipattas grew back to their full glory,and played their stellar role in culinary achievements but this year has brought in new contenders for the karipatta's favors.The sparrows nest in  various  niches occasioned by the backyard and in the spring they are busy building nests. They have taken to lining their nests with karipatta stems and leaves. So most tender stems are jabbed at by sparrow beaks and hacked from the plant. Some of them are picked up and transported to the nest. I would have thought that  the karipatta wasn't exactly  brilliant nest-building material, from the sparrow's point of view, but possibly in the absence of alternatives, the fragrant, quick drying karipatta has its uses. Perforce I wait for the sparrows' nests  to be completed  and the eggs to be laid before I can claim the karipattas as my own.
These days, I have a  regular morning engagement, that of  reclaiming all the fresh karipatta  leaves lying  in my backyard once  the  charge of the sparrow brigade is over.   I use these intercepted leaves to garnish  my cooking.  A small price to pay, as were it not for these feisty little birds, there would  be very little karipatta aroma in our lives.  I accept with grace  that  this hands-on training of  retrieving karipatta leaves,  has reconnected me to the values of conserving and sharing local  natural resources equitably.


  1. Interesting! I was teaching my class from a book by David Quammen on Island Ecologies, which has interesting sections on Madagascar and the extinction of the Dodo by the onslaught of modernism. Very Lewis Carollian all this!

  2. beautifully written! was thinking - a whole karipatta tree got devastated by aphids in our back garden, and guntur has no sparrows. really miss having them around, and after reading your article, i realise they would have been so useful too!

  3. Refreshing note indeed. Perfectly timed for the Sparrow Day tomorrow. I miss the chatter of the passerines. Now that you have a captive audience, perhaps you could sing to it. Daily. Twice. Sparrows use song systems to communicate about age, hunger, disputes, predators, territorial ambitions and mating. It might upset you to learn that only male sparrows sing. The females just cannot. You could record the chatter and play it back. You might be surprised. They bird brains get really mad will try to peck the speaker. The males speak. The females just listen. Sigh!

  4. What does a karipatta look like?
    Sorry but I couldn't find the word! (posted by non indian English teacher who can't go beyond her Oxford dictionary)

  5. Its been so long since I saw a sparrow. Had almost forgotten about them. Thank you for the memories.

    Kari is Tamil for Curry. Patta is leaf. Kari leaves are also called 'sweet neem leaves' and is not related to neem leaves. This is native to India and is used in cooking for its aroma. South Indians can't live without it.

  6. The last author (that I read) that had described such intense and wonderful study of animal behavior was in a prison. And therefore your observation (while not imprisoned) is even more so significant and astonishing. I live a little away from Bangalore, so I think, wherein there are some birds in the locality. Parrots, Mynahs, Finches, Spotted Doves, Owls and Cranes flourish besides Crows, Egrets and Kites BUT no Sparrows. Must admit I had not thought of them in ages and your note set me pondering. Cell phone towers are usually attributed to the disappearance of the Sparrows. We have a fair number of those towers around us here and other avian varieties seem to thrive in spite of them. So there has got to be another factor that has diminished their numbers. I was at a sprawling 40 acre bio technology center yesterday and spotted so many kinds of birds. No Sparrows! I asked the director of the center the inevitable question. “It’s the pesticide we use (stupid)”. The last word was not spoken but it was there in his look. Your article has got me thinking. Now it is hurting! Thank you.

  7. The numbered friend is a jailbird? Where?

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. * Sorry Ratna, I have not written to you in a long time - I had been busy as a sparrow myself, trying to get our curry patta from the ever dwindling NIH coffers. Or am I an Ant, living on the Aphids of my well endowed mentors...
    * Just last evening submitted a grant from the Karin Grunebaum Cancer Foundation - if you get some time read about Karin Grunebaum - a young and energetic German immigrant who was hit with cancer when she was pregnant with her last child.
    * By your fascination and symbiosis, you have connected very well with the Sparrows, Ants, Aphids and the KariVEpilai tree. They ALL enjoy & thrive very well in your backyard. Not many are blessed and connected with nature, this same way.