Mao’s disastrous war—on sparrows

"Speaking truth to power might not always prove beneficial to birds"

John Gerson

At the start of his frenzied “Great Leap Forward” Chairman Mao launched a mass extermination campaign against the “Four Pests”, which he declared to be rats, flies, mosquitos, and sparrows. The sparrow he had in mind was not our House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) but its close cousin Passer montanus. That is our Tree Sparrow but for some mysterious reason it takes over the House Sparrow niche, living close to human dwellings, in the Far East. Mao condemned it for eating grain, and so it does. But it also consumes weed seeds and insects and feeds its young on caterpillars, aphids, and other insects harmful to agriculture. Mao was a big-picture man who scorned experts, and those facts escaped him.

All across China people were mobilised to slaughter the sparrows. One technique was for local populations using drums, metal objects and musical instruments to create a cacophony to disturb the birds into flight and keep this up hour after hour, for so long that the sparrows dropped dead or fell to the ground in such exhaustion as to be easily finished off. In Beijing three whole days were devoted to this and 800,000 birds were judged afterwards to have been killed there.

Many took refuge in the few places that offered sanctuary. The garden of the Daily Worker correspondent Alan Winnington was one. The Polish embassy was another, although so many birds reached its grounds only to die there that diplomats had to use spades to clear the heaped bodies afterwards. And of course it was not only sparrows that died. So did flycatchers, magpies, and much, much, else. Beijing has a unique, large, race of the insectivorous Common Swift, and its presence is one of the pleasures of the summer city.  Only years later did any reappear.

The Great Leap Forward led to the great famine of 1959-61 and the death of tens of millions of Chinese. The avian holocaust had contributed to it by encouraging locusts and other voracious crop-eating insects to proliferate. But it could have been worse. When Winnington pointed out the ecological risks of the inclusion of the species among the “four pests”, the head of the New China News Agency was so shocked by this flagrant lèse majesté that he reported it to Mao himself. Mao’s response was characteristically brusque and daft: if their sparrows’ extinction did prove to have a damaging effect, he said, the Chinese could ask their Soviet friends to send replacements.

In 1958 Dr Zheng Zuoxin, a young academic in the Zoology department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, rose to the challenge. Instead of simply protesting he set about demonstrating truth from facts. Zheng conducted urgent research on the diet of Passer montanus, performing multiple autopsies that revealed the remains of insects as well as seeds. He submitted his results and although the process took months, by which time the heat had largely gone out of the campaign, in 1959 without any official exoneration (that would have involved loss of face), the sparrow was replaced as the fourth pest—by the bedbug.

Zheng was not of course rewarded for his work. In 1966 Mao ended his great sulk after the failure of the Great Leap and returned to the helm to launch his Cultural Revolution. Zheng was harassed, his home searched and his works and precious belongings taken, and he was set to cleaning lavatories. Fortunately after nearly a decade of misery he was permitted to emerge. In 1975 I met him in Beijing for dinner at the (birdwatcher) Danish Ambassador’s residence, on his first real outing. Had we only known about his quiet heroism in 1958 we would have been able to thank him. But Zheng’s life did not end without a golden October, during which he published his magnum opus on the birds of China and enjoyed foreign travel and plaudits from international ornithologists.

Speaking truth to power might not always prove beneficial to birds. After his flight to Taiwan following defeat in the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek would habitually seek relaxation at a villa in the island’s wooded hills. Those hills are home to several wonderful bird species endemic to the island, Swinhoe’s Pheasant and the Mikado Pheasant being the most spectacular among them.  One day after several years the old dictator complained to an attendant that something was wrong. There was much less bird song.  The birds must be dying out. This caused a flurry, and a decision was taken to introduce regulations protecting the birds of the hills. The pheasants are still there today—perhaps largely because nobody had the courage to inform the Generalissimo of the fact that he was going deaf.

And so to Hong Kong, truly an avian paradise, and one also blessed, up to now at least, by an absence of dictators.  Some years ago the Duke of Edinburgh, a great supporter of wildlife and its conservation, visited the Maipo wetland nature reserve on the northwest coast.  A friend of mine, an expert ornithologist, was deputed to escort the Prince. At one point His Royal Highness watched the flight of one of the Black Kites that are common in Hong Kong. Lowering his binoculars, he turned to my friend. “Buzzard,” he pronounced. “Er. . . actually, it’s a Black Kite.” “No. Buzzard!” said the Duke. And there the matter rested.

I for one do not blame my friend. Speaking truth to power should perhaps be a duty that need only be observed by ornithologists when the potential outcome for the birds themselves is sufficiently important.

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