PictureBy chineseposters.net.
Designer: Ding Hao, 1958
"Exterminate the four pests!"
Another excellent guest post by one of our participants, Laura Richardson: a fascinating article about the Chinese Destroy the Four Pests campaign, the war against sparrows and its consequences. Enjoy!

    On my Wyoming land, House Sparrows, specifically males, are “actively managed.” I speak of this not only in the evasive passive voice, but with a euphemism, and I hate euphemisms. I am uneasy about what I am doing to the birds, although no one forces me to do it. My approach to the sparrows reminds me—every day—of the Destroy the Four Pests campaign.
    I was living in Beijing when I learned of the Chinese war against sparrows. It was a brief explosion of human energy, directed at a common enemy—the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus, a smaller, gentler cousin of the House Sparrow, P. domesticus—that was broadly successful. The Tree Sparrow was nearly exterminated. Of course, there were unintended consequences.

    When I lived in China, failures of any sort, even events that had occurred decades earlier, were discussed guardedly. In my apartment in state-owned housing, with video cameras in the halls and elevators and, we all assumed, microphones everywhere—everyone lowered his voice to talk about disasters, natural or man-made. No one said “June” aloud, for example, because the Tiananmen Square massacre had, historically speaking, just occurred, on June 4, 1989; but no one said “Tangshan” aloud either, because the 1976 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people was a disaster somehow connected with regime change, the ousting of the Gang of Four and the end of the Great Cultural Revolution. The war against the birds was hardly a secret—millions of Chinese had participated in the slaughter—but 35 years later it was still dangerous news, still discussed in whispers.

    Mao Zedong promoted the "Destroy the Four Pests" campaign in 1958 as part of the Great Leap Forward that was to simultaneously collectivize and revolutionize agriculture, produce 10 million tons of steel in backyard smelters (melting, for example, all the woks no longer needed because collective kitchens ended home cooking), and mobilize and unify Chinese people of all ages, but especially children aged 5 years and older, in productive, patriotic activity. All the nation’s sparrows (grain-eating pests) along with all rats, flies, and mosquitoes, were to be killed. All the usual lethal methods were used (trapping; shooting; slingshotting; poisoning; destroying nests, eggs and young) as well as a unique, collective effort—the making of noise—to deprive the little birds of rest. All across China, people gathered at roosts at the appointed hour (after the 1949 revolution, China’s five time zones were collapsed into one, Beijing Standard Time) and raised a ruckus until the exhausted creatures dropped out of the sky.

PicturePhoto by Rone Tempest.
Traditional Beijing bird trap
   When my Chinese friends whispered about this massive adventure in “active management” of their commensal sparrows, the tone of the discussion was, universally, one of sadness, with speech punctuated by sighs and long pauses. Lao Chen (not her real name; all my Chinese friends’ names are changed), who had experienced the Japanese invasion, the civil war and revolution, the horrors of the Great Leap and the CultRev, insisted that we walk outside to talk about the birds. As we strolled the poplar-lined streets, she said quietly, “All the little birds were killed. If you were walking as we are, under the trees, you heard no birds.” She went on to explain that, despite considerable effort with poisons, the rats and insect enemies were unfazed. The worst, she said, was afterwards, when people starved. We thought, she said, that killing the birds would mean more grain, because we knew sparrows eat grain. But it didn’t.

    “My mother said, People who kill sparrows are bad people, they bring bad luck,” explained Wong Ayi, who was a toddler when the Four Pests campaign began. Her elder brother, she whispered emphatically, enjoyed it. School was closed, he learned to make traps, he was armed with a slingshot, he got to go out all day with friends and kill birds—it was great fun. He wanted to cook them, but their mother refused—at first. “Later, we had to eat them, we ate them and black flour. But it was bad luck, my mother was right. Soon, we had only black flour.”

    “Terrible, terrible,” whispered Gao Laoshi, a retired diplomat. He said that “we”—his fellow  university students—knew nothing of what was happening in the countryside. He was not allowed to go home, he received no mail. All the newspapers reported victory after victory in the steel campaign, in the war against the Four Pests, the new rice-planting scheme: everything was a great success. But in fact, “people were eating bark off trees, they were eating grass. My uncle ate raw cottonseed, he died a terrible death. So many died.”  Gao felt that the Four Pests war was a crucial element in the famine, which killed tens of millions of rural Chinese, his uncle among them. The pseudo-scientific agricultural policies of the Great Leap surely were a root cause, but the extermination of the birds, and a concomitant irruption of locusts, contributed. 

PictureBy chineseposters.net
Designer: Shen Nan, 1959
"Eliminating the last sparrow"
   The role of Chinese scientists in the Four Pests campaign remains ambiguous. Some say no biologists were consulted before the sparrow-killing began, that Mao’s personal dislike of the birds was the campaign’s sole impetus. Others vaguely mention “scientists’ reports” that each sparrow ate some 4.5 kilos—nearly ten pounds—of grain annually, that each million birds killed saved enough grain to feed 60,000 people. The birds’ insectivory was mentioned only later. After a year of wholesale slaughter, the sparrow was abruptly pardoned, its place on the list of Four Pests taken by bedbugs. The change was not explained. The Chinese population of P. montanus recovered, with help from imported Russian stock. Today, the architect of the Four Pests campaign is dead, along with most of those who enforced it. Even the children who helped carry it out are old now, and their children are middle-aged. It’s a new day.

    In January 1997, a European Union customs officer in Antwerp confiscated a Chinese export container destined for the Netherlands, a transit point on the way to Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Inside were 1,236,000 plucked and frozen P. montanus, a protected species in the EU, some  of the 6,000,000 Chinese birds illegally imported that year to be “traded at high prices as a delicacy and placed on the menus of restaurants.”



Gene Tempest
05/28/2013 11:30am

What an absolutely fascinating article.

Ronna Reed
05/28/2013 1:32pm

What an amazing story! The failure of our chemical companies to take responsibility for their "unintended consequences" may have us eating black flour soon.

Dennise B. -- House Sparrow Project Team
05/29/2013 3:47pm

We are very glad to see this post has been "food for thought" for some of you. Thanks all for your comments and feedback (here and by e-mail)!

05/30/2013 3:50pm

As I read your article I hoped you were moving toward addressing issues surrounding the 'management' of introduced species as opposed to native species. It didn't quite go there!
I have been present during a couple of the webinar calls and it does seem to me that 'managing' the non-native House Sparrow is quite a big issue for everyone.
My thought is that even if the HS Project meets its goal of finding ways to keep bird boxes for the use of our native birds, it will not have addressed the larger issue of the ever growing HS population. And, if we don't control the HS population, we surely will end up with unintended consequences...

Dennise - House Sparrow Project Team
06/11/2013 11:31am


Yes, you're right, the management of non-native species –both at the local and regional levels– is a big issue for bird monitors as well as conservation folks. However, the higher-level population question requires a much larger and different kind of study, which isn't (at least currently) the focus of this project, or the posted article.

This is indeed an important, challenging question that will need to be addressed if the overall H. Sparrow populations continue to grow.

10/13/2013 1:06am

Today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well therefore to this day.

07/24/2014 2:30am

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