As soon as I read today’s environmental headline, that nearly a third of America’s 800 bird species are in danger, I thought of the great sparrow massacre in China.
On May 18, 1958, the Chinese dictator, Mao, erroneously convinced that sparrows were eating large portions of China’s grain crop, ordered: “The whole people, including 5 year old children, be mobilized” to eliminate the sparrows. A former Chinese elementary school student, quoted in Judith Shapiro’s memorable book “Mao’s War Against Nature,” describes the slaughter. “The whole school went to kill sparrows. We climbed ladders to knock down their nests, and beat gongs in the evenings when they were coming home to roost.”
This coordinated effort, by millions of Chinese children and adults, killing sparrows, beating gongs at a specific designated hour all over the countryside, day after day, to exhaust the birds, basically wiped out the sparrow population. The next year locusts and other pests that were the primary food sources for sparrows, devoured the grain crop. The sparrows had been their predators. Without the sparrows, the pests took over. A famine ensued. Millions of Chinese died. The next year Mao was informed that the campaign against the sparrows backfired. He issued a new order: “Forget it.”
That’s what can happen when an ecosystem gets out of whack - when a single keystone species is lost. That’s why the first U.S. government report out this week on “The State of the Birds” is essential.