Chairman Mao and the Sparrows

"Everyone come and fight sparrows" — Propaganda poster showing children killing sparrows using a sling shot

“Everyone come and fight sparrows” — Propaganda poster showing children killing sparrows using a sling shot

They started waving bright red flags, and banging pots and pans at dusk. The frantic commotion sustained for days. Terrified Eurasian Tree and House Sparrows wheeled in distraught flight overhead as they searched in vain for a place of respite. Exhaustion took hold of the little birds, and they soon littered the ground. Children and adults wringed their necks with evangelistic zeal. The Sparrow – the enemy of the People’s Republic – was vanquished, no longer would they cause the famines. The blame surely lay on the birds because the infallible Chairman Mao and obedient Eighth Party Congress at declared it to be so.

Fledgling stages of the Great Leap Forward began with the outright persecution of the main antagonist enemies of the Marxist-socialist utopia promised to the people. Nature stood in the way of progression, it was a reality that had to be vilified, in order that the people could be mobilized as a standing army of eco-terrorists. The Sparrows were one of the four great pests. Rats, flies, and mosquitoes rounded out the list of pests. Why were they declared pests? Sparrows eat the grains intended for the workers, who were consistently in the state of near or outright famine. Mao was either unable admit or deluded to the fact that his government’s failed agricultural policies and collectivization practices owned the lion’s share of the condemnation. Taking responsibility for failed policies would lend the appearance of weakness or, even worse, incompetence, and the Party would not or could not endure that type of tangible responsibility. Mao needed to find a scapegoat, and thus the Four Pests Campaign was born in the deep recesses of his manipulative mind.

Eliminating the last sparrow

Eliminating the last sparrow

“Wipe out the Four Pests” was the slogan that stirred the populace into action. Mao even conscripted children with his declaration of, “The whole people, including five-year old Children, must be mobilized to eliminate the four pests.”  The violent act of killing masses of creatures was made both a patriotic and amusing duty for the children. Indoctrinated into a culture of violence that would culminate with upcoming Cultural Revolution where the blind ferocity would be visited upon their neighbors and families, Chinese youth were now tools of the Communist Party. Automatons engaged in the perverse will of Chairman Mao.

The Sparrows were viewed as the vilest of nature’s pestilences, to the point were even art that depicted the little songbirds disappeared from the public view as the artists undoubtedly feared the persecution associated with being in collaboration with an enemy of the state. Soon the Four Pests Campaign won its war against the “evil” Sparrow. The landscape was devoid of the birds. Chairman Mao was posed to overthrow Nature and its order.

His lack of compassion of other sentient beings stands in direct opposition to his Buddhist upbringing. Growing up in the household of his abusive father and devout Buddhist mother, Wen Chi-mei, Mao Zedong initially adopted the Chinese Chán practices (early Zen) of his mother.  Chán is within the Great Vehicle of Buddhism, otherwise known as Mahayana, which holds the aspiration of the Bodhisattva as one of its highest ideals. The Bodhisattva is the individual who works to attain Enlightenment as quickly as possible, so that they can benefit every single sentient being in their own path to Enlightenment. Mao at one time aspired to have the Buddha-mind or Bodhicitta. This same man would one day tell His Holiness of the Dalai Lama during their final meeting, “Religion is poison.”

The effects of the “success” of the Four Pests Campaign become readily apparent within the next year. The song of the Sparrows was not heard anywhere in the countryside. The dawn chorus now consisted of only the silent rising of the sun over the eastern horizon. The following spring, the crops started to grow, and immediately, the insects descended upon the feast of tender shoots. The Four Pests Campaign had unwittingly removed Nature’s insect control from China’s agricultural infrastructure.  Starvation rode its pale horse over hinterlands and cities. The Great Leap Forward only succeeded in producing the greatest famine seen in the long history of China. Chairman Mao’s solution to the disaster of his own creation was to quietly replace the pest of the Sparrow with the pest of the bedbug. The damage had been done to the ecology and agriculture of China, but perhaps the most insidious result was the psychological cultivation of accepted violence by millions of children.

5Starting in 1966, many of these young survivors of the Great Leap Forward were pressed into service again. They were tasked with removing another blight from the Chinese cultural landscape. A new and more dangerous pest infested in their communities.  The youth were organized into Red Guards with ever-present Little Red Books filled with slogans, propaganda, and hatred. Chairman Mao’s new pests were the intellectuals, artists, the religious, and anyone with the potential for independent thought. If Mao succeeded in eliminating the Sparrow, then why not remove these subversives? The well-indoctrinated youths were all-too-willing to be the nefarious hands of Mao in this destructive enterprise. The violence observed and acted upon during their formative years upon the sparrows had resulted the runaway aggression of their early adulthood.

Female House Sparrow

Female House Sparrow

“Garbage birds! Goddamn trash birds! Introduced Species!” are among the common cries from birders as we have the “misfortune” of seeing the ubiquitous House Sparrow. The House Sparrow has become one of our great pests along with European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, and Eurasian Collared-Doves, the dreaded horde of introduced species from Europe that have captured vast swathes of  territory in the New World. All of these Old World species have had dramatic impacts on the North American native birds via inter-species competition and resource allocation competition. Their introduction has simply been an unmitigated avian catastrophe. But who was the dunderhead that introduced these “pests” and why?

Eugene Schieffelin is history’s villain of the Acclimatization Movement in North American (an ecological Snidely Whiplash, complete with black suit and fancy mustache), for he in his chaotic mind was conceived the notion of introducing all the birds mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare to New York City. He imported starlings in 1890 and House Sparrows some thirty years later, although the starling introduction truly thrived under his guidance. Every European Starling that you see can almost assuredly to trace back to Scheffelin

As a young man, I harbored a particular vindictive attitude towards the starlings and sparrows. I was invariably taught through trusted and not-so-trusted adults and ignorant peers that the introduced species were of little or no value. In fact, they were competition for our preferred species – chickens, pheasants, and livestock, all of which are also introduced to this continent. This engendered hatred coalesced in some acts that I am not proud of.

Lying on burlap feed bags that itched and poked, we waited under a low tin roof. Our 22s were filled with birdshot cartridges. The minutes passed before the first starlings come into the pheasant enclosure for the scattered bits of loose and spilled grain. A host of House Sparrows soon joined them in the sloppy feast. With an unspoken coordinated volley of the rifle fire, hundreds of tiny specks of lead birdshot screamed towards the feeding birds. When the proverbial smoke cleared, several starlings and sparrows laid dead or writhing in the throes of dying. There was little blood and gore, just a scattering of feathered dead bodies. With a flourish of boisterous enthusiasm, we picked up the little birds and took them to be accounted for our bounties of the 10 cents for House Sparrows and a quarter for each starling. Even with several coins in my pocket, I felt a gnawing ping of guilt. My prepubescent self somehow managed to feel that these violent actions were wrong. I was always a gentle child, and engaging in the killing did not properly account with my general nature. Once in a while, I still would kill a sparrow or gopher, but as I aged these slaughterhouse scenes become increasingly infrequent.

The question of the impact of introduced species on the native avian fauna arises though. How can we reduce or eliminate the harmful impacts of these species, and how can it be done in a nonviolent fashion? Or do we simply acknowledge that they are here to stay, and we will have to come to terms with that reality?

The best method to discourage House Sparrows is deployed a range of tactics around your house that are effective.  If you have nesting boxes on your property, please purchase ones that are designed to specific desirable species such as chickadees and swallows. They are a whole range of options that are detailed at

As birders, we must cultivate a mindset that views the natural world as it is currently presenting itself. The House Sparrow is simply doing what it has evolved to do. We have to accept that the sparrow is not an object of derision, it is simply another bird. A nonviolent mindset makes birding a more pleasant activity, and affects how we communicate our love of nature to birders or other folks. Out of our concern and compassion, the others will pick up on that vibe, and their outlooks and actions will be altered. We as birders can help society avoid another Four Pests Campaign, and by extension, lead to a more peaceful world for all living beings.

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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