Mao Zedong campaign to exterminate birds from the country paid a heavy price for China

China: Dutch historian Frank Dekoter begins his book The Great Famine in Mao China with this powerful sentence.

Decotter describes China period as The Great Leap Forward when Mr  Mao Zedong the founder of leftist China pushed the whole of China into a race of development bringing it closer to the West.

They did this through large scale farming & rapid industrialization.

Mao Zedong campaign to exterminate birds from the country paid a heavy price

Historians disagree about-how many people died in the historic famine that followed this series of advances. Pre Dekotor estimates put the death toll at between 1.5 crore &  1.25 crore.

But Dutch historian Frank Dekoter believes that between 1958 - 1962 about 45 million people were killed needlessly.

Speaking to British news Mundo Kim Todd says that the most terrifying thing of the period was the campaign against the 4 plagues.

Part of Mao Great Leap Forward was a campaign against animals. Mao saw them as an obstacle to China's development. 4 types of animals were declared harmful. These were rats mosquitoes flies or bugs &  sparrows. Mao wanted the Chinese people to get rid of him.

Mao Zedong

The 1st three animals were killed in the name of public health & sanitation. But the fourth had committed a different kind of crime.

Kim Todd a natural history expert and author of the book Sparrow says that sparrows were included on the list because they eat a lot of grain. Mao wanted every grain of grain to be for population only.

But China paid a heavy price for killing the bird. Soon China had to import the bird from other countries.

Horrible ways to kill a birds
Horrible ways to kill a birds

Horrible ways to kill a birds

History is full of stories of natural disasters but what happened in China in 1958 hardly compares to what happened in China in 1958 says environmental journalist and author John Platt describing what happened in China in those few years. Destruction can be compared.

China founding leader Mao decided that his country could live without sparrows. Like many other policies the impact of this decision was so widespread that a series of disasters began.

Speaking to British news Mundo from America Portland Platt said that every method was used to kill the bird.

They were shot people broke the nests & the eggs were taken out. The most gruesome method of killing them was to chase them &shout until they were unconscious.

A bird has to rest in its nest. Flying and searching for food is very tiring for this bird.

According to the plot birds were killed on such a large scale during this period that there are stories of people shoveling dead birds & throwing them away. Within two years species which was most abundant in China was on the brink of extinction.

Todd points out that the methods used against sparrows were not precise enough to confine them to a single species.

Crowd of people broke the nests and killed every bird they saw. In cities like Beijing people made so much noise that birds got tired & died while flying. This affected not only sparrows but also other species of birds.

A locust attack

Todd explains that after this bird killing campaign there was a locust attack. People believed that this happened because of anti bird campaign. Eventually the bird was dropped from the list & replaced by bedbugs.

Platt suggests that in order to maintain some degree of natural balance China had to import millions of sparrows from Russia.

East Asian expert & British news journalist Tim Luard says this was because sparrows like to eat locusts.

There were no sparrows left to feed the locusts causing plagues of locusts crop failures & the resulting famine that killed millions.

But Todd admits it's not easy to make a direct link between sparrow deaths locust attacks & famine.

Sparrows eat mostly grain and insects feed their young. They do this work at certain times of the year. If you think sparrows are not abundant and they are  not doing that that's going to have a direct impact on the insect population.

For one thing not only sparrows were killed in this campaign but many other species of birds were also targeted many of which are more insectivorous than sparrows.

On the other hand Platt says that it would not be wrong to say that the campaign against sparrow was responsible for  famine but there were many other reasons for it.

Platt believes that main cause of the famine was the drought of the 1960s. In addition the mistakes made by China authoritarian government in trying to change nature were also ignored.

These mistakes include changing agricultural production methods that have led to crop destruction.

Many writers also believe that the government increased steel production to promote industries which forced many people to leave their villages to work in factories. Due to this agricultural production decreased  & the needs could not be met during the famine.

Journalist Platt says that Today we see once again around the world people making decisions that are not based on science we are seeing droughts & heat waves. There are many cases in which the natural balance has-been disturbed.

At the same time Todd says that this was not the 1st time in history that these birds have-been targeted.

There was a war on sparrows in America but it was not like China. It was in the mid19th century when many Americans thought it was a good idea to bring in sparrows to eat insects.


Importation of sparrows

Importation of sparrows

Todd points out that many people in America imported sparrows. It happened across America in Brooklyn Oregon Cincinnati. & within a few decades sparrow population increased dramatically.

Sparrows can be aggressive towards many other species. There were many people including ornithologists, who noticed that native birds were disappearing from many areas because sparrows dominated.

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In such a situation those who wanted to control the bird population & those who wanted to preserve the bird came face to face. However this conflict did not have the same impact as it did in China.

I do not think either side has-been able to impose its argument on the other says Todd. But the bird definitely won because I'm doing this interview with the British news from Minneapolis in the middle of America & I can hear the bird chirping. The bird outside the window has made America its home.