Sparrow Killing And the Chinese Famine

Sara Starkey comments on a short piece from The Guardian which relates how sparrow killing in the UK was still going on up until the 1930’s, and shares info on how the Chinese tried to eradicate these ‘pests’ suffering the consequences for tampering with the balance of nature. Her remarks on the grey squirrel, demonised after a killing campaign against the red squirrel, are very pertinent, highlighting how easily people unthinkingly absorb the propaganda against whatever species has fallen out of our favour:

100 years ago: Wheat harvest open to the ravages of sparrows by A. Nicholson (The Guardian)

Sparrows in a corn field, Cornwall. Photograph: Nik Taylor Wildlife/Alamy
Sparrows in a corn field, Cornwall. Photograph: Nik Taylor Wildlife/Alamy

It was very disappointing this morning to see the rain falling heavily and to come past field after field of ungathered hay. The low temperature and absence of sunshine have prevented the corn from maturing, and the rain we have had has done well for it: field after field of wheat and oats that I came by this morning looked in perfect condition, and should a hot, dry time set in we ought to have an exceptionally good corn harvest. In the South of England if they have a bright, sunny day or two the winter oats will be quite ready to cut, and wheat and barley are in their final stage: but, like the oats, they will be significantly open to the ravages of sparrows. These little pests have, I fear, had a preposterous twelve months. It was a mild winter, and open weather in the springtime has also favoured them. In one place I know well I have noticed that for half a mile round a house, where a trap has been carefully attended to each day for the past year, and where owls are also about each night, the number of sparrows and other birds gives no anxiety. The great advantage of the trap is that any innocent species that may get caught can be liberated, and in fact the robin has found his immunity from danger, and often pays a visit to this well-set-out meal.

We should always be careful about what we wish for…

It has been said  – and having seen footage of the millions of dead sparrows piled high on trucks in China – I believe we fight nature with little logic and much ill conceived hate.  Kill kill kill seems to be the name of the game.

Sparrow killing in CHINA by order of Mao Zedong

The campaign against the ‘Four Pests’ was initiated in 1958 as a hygiene campaign by Mao Zedong, who identified the need to exterminate mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. Sparrows – mainly the Eurasian Tree Sparrow – were included on the list because they ate grain seeds, robbing the people of the fruits of their labour. The masses of China were mobilized to eradicate the birds, and citizens took to banging pots and pans or beating drums to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed. Sparrows and other birds were shot down from the sky, resulting in the near-extinction of the birds in China. Non-material rewards and recognition were offered to schools, work units and government agencies in accordance with the volume of pests they had killed.

By April 1960, Chinese leaders realized that sparrows ate a large amount of insects, as well as grains.Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased.  Mao ordered the end of the campaign against sparrows, replacing them with bed bugs in the ongoing campaign against the Four Pests. By this time, however, it was too late. With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine, in which at least 20 million people died of starvation.

In case anyone thinks it is just the Chinese who are so stupid…..

In the UK we used to have – up to and including the 1930 – a campaign to kill RED squirrels as ‘vermin’….you got paid for each tail you produced.  One such red squirrel ‘club’ killed 85,000 of these creatures we are now spending a fortune in ‘saving’,  We are now blaming the grey squirrel for the red squirrels demise, a typical human trait…. never blame ourselves.  The hate has moved to the grey squirrel – an animal who happens to have found a niche in our very denuded natural environment – and people are being given carte blanche to kill them!  And very worryingly, there are people relishing this new ‘sport’.

But it could be badgers, moles, voles, pigeons, foxes, Canada geese…the list is endless.

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