Money Doesn't Grow On Trees, Does It?
A Ubiquity of Sparrows developed as a result of research I am doing for another project, Between the Song and the Silence, a performance piece for which I am forming a choir to recreate the songs of extinct and threatened birds in Germany. On my first visit to the Museum für Naturkunde (the Museum of Natural History) in Berlin, I encountered a diorama in the ornithology exhibits which looked at birds in the urban environment. Prominently displayed was a municipal public garbage can filled with ersatz garbage, and festooned with a handful of species of birds. In terms of sheer numbers, sparrows were amply represented (I have included a few photos of the display for context).
This in turn reminded me of the collective noun for sparrows, “ubiquity”, and so a flock of sparrows is known as a “ubiquity of sparrows”. And they truly seemed ubiquitous in Berlin! At every outdoor café, the songbirds could be seen hopping about the feet of the patrons, with flocks exploding out of bushes and trees, which save for their bursts of song, had concealed them.
I began thinking about what makes some bird species so successful. For example, there have long been arguments about whether birds like the sparrow have extended their range because they are adaptable regarding diet and environment and aggressive toward native species, crowding more the vulnerable native species out of their habitats. Other opinions argue for a more passive encroachment; as vulnerable native species succumb to environmental pressures precipitated primarily by humans, other species, such as sparrows, move in to occupy the void.
I also reflected upon the impact of such species fluctuations on the environment, and the effect of removing these opportunistic species. Which led me to Mao Zedong’s 1958 Four Pests campaign, which has long been considered one of the world’s worst self-inflicted environmental disasters, leading to China’s famine from 1958-1961. This famine was a direct result of the deliberate eradication of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
As part of Mao’s Great Leap Forward agricultural campaign, which re-examined farming practices, Mao concluded that there were four pests that required extermination: the fly, mosquito, sparrow and rat. The sparrow’s inclusion on this list was a consequence of calculations which determined that as each sparrow consumed approximately 4.5 Kg of seed per year, every million sparrows exterminated would result in saving enough grain to feed 60,000 people.
For three days, starting December 13, 1958, the entire populace was exhorted to participate in the slaughter of sparrows. Drumming, shouting, beating the trees with long poles, erecting innumerable scarecrows and flags, using slingshots and rifles, birds began to fall out of the sky by the thousands as they succumbed to exhaustion. Millions of sparrows died, with truckloads of dead sparrows being driven around the cities and towns to demonstrate the efficacy of the campaign. Unfortunately, by the time that China’s Academy of Sciences produced a report on how many insects (such as locusts, a favorite food of the sparrow) the birds ate compared to how much seed, which demonstrated that the killing of sparrows was highly counter-productive, it was too late. The ensuing proliferation of locusts and other insects caused massive crop failures, and led to the deaths of between 30 and 45 million people.
Growing up, our next–door neighbours were from China. As children, we would ask for stories of what it was like to grow up there, and received stories of magic and beauty. When Mrs. Wing died, we learned about how truly harsh the conditions were for them there.
Truly an admonitory tale.
Which has led to my observations of the sparrow’s behavior, and ours in relation to theirs, photographing them in urban settings.
I also am in the process of assembling archival film, photos and drawings of the campaign. My intention at the moment would be to assemble them into a video with a voiceover of a cautionary parable (which I am currently writing).
Sparrow dioramas: Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin