Falling blackbirds in Arkansas: In Mao Zedong's China it was falling sparrows

The mysterious case of the blackbirds dropping from the Arkansas sky recalls Mao Zedong's Great Sparrow Massacre.

Stephen B. Thornton/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/AP Photo
A worker with United States Environmental Services LLC collects dead birds from the back yard of a home in Beebe, Ark. Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011. Wildlife officials are trying to determine what caused more than 1,000 blackbirds to die and fall from the sky over the Arkansas town.

The mysterious case of the blackbirds falling from the sky in Arkansas recalls one of the lesser known lunacies that Mao Zedong insisted China follow – the Great Sparrow Massacre.

Worried that animals and insects were spreading disease and eating valuable grain, Mao launched the “Four Pests Campaign” in 1958, exhorting peasants to eliminate every mosquito, fly, rat, and sparrow they came across.

Sparrows, Mao had decided – apparently without consulting anyone who actually knew about these things – were eating millions of tons of seed and grain, so they had to go.

Boys took out their catapults, while villagers knocked down sparrow nests and broke any eggs they found. The most effective method of wiping the little birds out, though, was for people to go around banging pots and pans every evening so loudly that the sparrows did not dare settle anywhere. After half an hour or so of flying around without a break, they fell from the sky from sheer exhaustion.

The unfortunate blackbirds of Arkansas appeared to have died a natural death – though some reports are indicating that perhaps fireworks are to blame – and in numbers that appear small enough to have little effect on the local environment. The deliberate massacre of million upon million of Chinese sparrows, on the other hand, proved catastrophic for their killers.

It was not until 1960 that Chinese scientists persuaded Mao that sparrows actually ate more insects than grain, and he called the campaign off. But it was too late. Locusts, suddenly freed from a dangerous natural predator, descended on the land in 1959 and 1960, and ravaged the nation's crops.

Thirty million Chinese died of starvation during those two years. The lack of sparrows was by no means the only cause, but it contributed to the disaster, according to historians.

Today the sparrows are back. Blackbirds, however, are very rarely seen in China, either hopping or dropping.

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