29. The “Smash Sparrows Campaign” Brought the Birds to the Brink of Extinction
Chairman Mao’s government calculated that each sparrow ate about four pounds of grain per year, plus an indeterminate amount of fruits eaten or ruined by their pecking. Multiply that by hundreds of millions or billions of sparrows, and that is a whole lot of lost grain and fruits. So sparrows were designated as one of “Four Pests” slated for extermination, and a merciless eradication effort was launched against them. Birds were described as “public animals of capitalism“, and posters were plastered all across China, encouraging the masses to wipe out sparrows in particular. Millions of young and old, armed with sticks, stones, slingshots, and noisemakers, went after them with a will.
In what authorities designated the “Eliminate Sparrows” or “Smash Sparrows” campaign, the birds were slaughtered wherever they were found, on the ground, in trees or bushes, or in the air. Their nests were destroyed, their chicks killed, and their eggs smashed. To keep them from resting, organized groups loudly beat drums, gongs, pots and pans, until the tiny birds dropped dead from exhaustion. The relentless campaign brought sparrows to the brink of extinction – at which point it was realized, way too late, that the whole thing might have been a bad idea.