Why you should care
When Mao decided to wage war on birds, he was the one who lost.
In 1958, Mao Tse-tung was one of the most powerful men in the world, founder and leader of the People’s Republic of China, with his eyes fixed on the future of his country.
Sometimes that meant keeping his eyes fixed both in the air and on the ground. Specifically at animals that flew and crawled: 1958 was the year Mao launched the Four Pests Campaign, one of the earliest salvos in his Great Leap Forward, a push to transform China from a predominantly agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse. The four pests? Rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. The objective was their systematic extermination.
The mosquitoes, flies and rats were easy to explain — they spread disease. Mao’s beef with sparrows was simple too: They were capitalist animals, stealing the hard-earned grain of China’s peasants and doing nothing to earn it. He called for the wee birds’ elimination from China, for the good of the whole population.
People all over China would bang pots, pans and drums to keep the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they dropped dead from exhaustion.
And the people answered. It was a wholesale slaughter of the plump, brown birds. Some people shot them from the air, others found nests, killing the fledglings and destroying the eggs within. Perhaps the most gruesome and creative attack was the noisemaker method, in which people all over China would bang pots, pans and drums to keep the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they dropped dead from exhaustion.
According to reports from the time, birds began to take refuge in the gardens of foreign embassies, where they could rest in relative quiet. When the sparrows were discovered at the Polish Embassy, Chinese authorities asked permission to exterminate them — and when the embassy refused, its garden was surrounded by people banging drums, who harassed the sparrows until they died en masse, and the embassy workers had to remove the bird corpses by the shovelful.
While there are no solid numbers on how many sparrows were massacred, due to the routine inflation of such targets in China during this time, experts believe the sparrows may have been nearly driven to extinction. And they weren’t the only casualties: There are numerous reports of people falling from roofs they had scaled to destroy sparrow nests, and other birds and animals were shot out of the sky, mistaken for sparrows, or consumed poison that had been left out for the birds.
“[The campaign’s] negative effects were obvious quickly, as an outbreak of locusts the following season did far more damage to the crops than any sparrows,” says Judith Shapiro, a professor at American University and author of Mao’s War Against Nature. She interviewed people who’d been in China during the campaign, and everyone remembers taking part in it. “Children were praised for bringing the dead sparrows to a central location,” Shapiro says. “People told me that a local delicacy of roast sparrows on a stick was no longer available after the campaign since the birds had basically been wiped out.”
But Goliath lost the fight anyway. It turned out that while sparrows eat grain, they also eat insects — and without sparrows to keep the insect population in check, China’s crops were fair game. Locusts, leafhoppers and other insects descended in droves. By 1960, Mao realized his mistake and called a halt to the war on sparrows, but the damage had already been done. Without the birds — or any pesticides, since the store had been mostly used up during the early days of the pest campaign — China found itself powerless against the insects. For example, an estimated 60 percent of Nanjing’s crops in 1960 were damaged by bugs. “Peasants tried to kill the insects at night by setting up huge lamps in the middle of the fields so that the insects would fly around them until they dropped down dead,” writes Jasper Becker in Hungry Ghosts.
What followed was the largest famine in history, with estimates of the dead ranging from 35 to 50 million people in the two-year period between 1959 and 1961. The sparrow apocalypse wasn’t the only culprit — Mao had ordered tens of millions of peasants to abandon working in the fields to focus on smelting steel. There was widespread deforestation as trees were cut down to fuel charcoal ovens, and peasants were forced to surrender whatever metal they owned to be smelted, including iron stoves and cookware. Meanwhile, many fields lay fallow and grain harvests plummeted, even as regions inflated their reported grain harvests to stay in the government’s good graces. When shortages were reported though, Mao and other high-level officials allegedly blamed grain hoarding rather than their own policies.
“The sparrow-killing campaign underlines the risks and promises of ‘environmental authoritarianism,’” Shapiro says. “When the dictator is right, there are good results, but when he is wrong, the results are chilling. In this case, Mao was wrong.”