Exterminating Sparrows: A Lesson From History

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”– Aldous Huxley

So-called “propaganda posters” have been an important part of Chinese culture since the Mao Zedong era.  These often colourful and striking artworks were designed to sway public opinion in favour of its policies (a bit like News International does for right wing governments in the West today.. cough).  The posters have become collectible and several of my China-based friends spend large amounts of their spare time visiting flea markets to add to their collection.  It was one of these friends who introduced me to these posters and I soon became interested in how the environment was depicted.  Perhaps surprisingly to some, as far back as the 1950s posters promoted messages about the benefits of planting trees and “greening” the countryside.   The header image is from the early 1970s with the message “Start a new upsurge of the people’s duty of tree planting movement”.

However, there is one poster that jumped out at me.

Eliminating the last sparrow.  This poster, aimed at schools, was part of a 1959 series to support the  “4 pests campaign” to eradicate sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitoes.  The destruction of sparrows caused an ecological imbalance, resulting in heavy crop losses to insects due to the absence of one of their most effective natural predators.  Soon after, sparrows were protected and even imported from Russia to replenish the domestic population.
Eliminating the last sparrow. This poster, aimed at schools, was part of a series to support the “4 pests campaign” to eradicate sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitoes.

This poster is from 1959 and was part of a series to support Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows.  How this policy played out is an important lesson about the unintended consequences of altering the natural balance of ecosystems.  It won’t surprise many to hear that the campaign backfired spectacularly and it’s a lesson that ALL governments would do well to heed.

Mao Zedong initiated the “Four Pests” campaign in 1958 after concluding that several blights should be exterminated – namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. According to environmental activist Dai Qing, “Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn’t want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the ‘four pests’ should be killed.”

Mao was particularly annoyed by the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus, 树麻雀) part of the diet of which was grain. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people.  Armed with these statistics, Mao launched the Great Sparrow Campaign to address the problem.  Millions of people were mobilised and the excitement was captured in this report from a Shanghai newspaper:

“On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries.  In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight. The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows. In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labour force was mobilised into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”

And there is a fascinating personal account by Han Yumin printed in The New Yorker in October 1959.

The effectiveness of the campaign was such that the Tree Sparrow population was decimated. And without the sparrows to curb the insect population, crops were being devastated in a way far worse than if birds had been spared.  At least partly as a result, agricultural yields that year were disastrously low.

The campaign against the sparrows was finally terminated in late 1959 when the Academy of Sciences leaders highlighted the findings of scientists such as Zhu Xi and Zheng Zuoxin. Zhu and Zheng had autopsied the digestive systems of sparrows and found that three-quarters of the contents were harmful insects and only one-quarter was human food. This showed that sparrows were beneficial for humans.

On this advice from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mao declared a complete halt to the Great Sparrow Campaign, replacing sparrows with “bed bugs” in the “Four Pests” campaign.  Suddenly sparrows were not just protected but the domestic population was supplemented by imports of sparrows from Russia! Eventually, after several years of poor crop yields, the situation began to improve.  The number of people who starved in the 1958-1961 famine is disputed – and it’s impossible to say how much of the disaster was caused by the extermination of sparrows – but there can be no doubt that this episode is a stark lesson about the unintended consequences of human interference into natural ecosystems.  I hope it’s one lesson in history that is not forgotten by the current generation of leaders, not just in China but around the world.


Chinese Posters: See www.chineseposters.net 

i09: See URL: http://io9.com/5927112/chinas-worst-self-inflicted-disaster-the-campaign-to-wipe-out-the-common-sparrow 

Zona Europa: See URL: http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20061130_1.htm

4 thoughts on “Exterminating Sparrows: A Lesson From History”

  1. Hi Terry –

    Enjoyed your blog. I love these posters. Remember seeing examples of them on various visits to China.

    Interestingly, I have noticed (and commented on) the fact that in the ‘80s the sparrow was very common in my Los Angeles neighborhood. Always, groups of them on the sidewalks. Now, they are almost completely gone or very scarce. Scrub jays and mockingbirds have also declined significantly. Hummingbirds seem to remain healthy, as do bushtits. So, it is interesting [sad] to observe the impact on birding populations from urban development.



  2. I learnt from a documentary that China imported sparrows when it was proved that they were useful part of biodiversity.
    Can you tell me where did the impoimported birds come from. Thank you

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