In March of 1958, the leaders of China commanded citizens all over the country to come out of their houses to bang pots & pans and force the local sparrows to fly constantly, not letting them come down or rest in their nests. The goal was to cause them to drop dead from exhaustion – for a mass extermination drive called “Eliminate Sparrows Campaign”.
Millions of people followed the orders. They also poisoned the birds, caught them in nets, destroyed their nests, broke the eggs and killed their chicks. In addition to these tricks, they also simply shot the birds down from the sky.
Some estimates say that about a billion sparrows were killed.
Their fault? They ate grains from the farms.
The oldest fossil of a sparrow to be discovered is believed to be 1,40,000 years old. It was found in a cave near Bethlehem in Palestine. These humble little brown birds are here since epochs. However, over the generations, some sparrow species learnt to settle with humans. They built their nests on our houses and barns and fed on grains that we grew in farms. In the context of human society’s agricultural ambitions, these otherwise harmless birds started to be regarded as an invasive bird, a pest and a nuisance.
Biologist Rob Dunn writes that – in Europe, in the 1700s, local governments called for the extermination of house sparrows in the name of agriculture. In parts of Russia, your taxes would be lowered in proportion to the number of sparrow heads you turned in.
Even in North America, where these birds were intentionally introduced in mid-1800s, to most people, they were but pests. And yet, during that exact phase of time when the rest of the world was finding ways to obliterate sparrows from their lives, a transcendent man dwelling in a small cabin somewhere in a woodland of Massachusetts, expressed his reverence for a sparrow in these breathtaking words:
“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”
But then, it was none other than Henry David Thoreau – one of the rarest of rare minds to possess the sublime intelligence required to grasp the true value of the wild. The man knew quiet joys and meanings of nature like no other.
Perhaps it required a certain decency, and patient observation from humanity to appreciate the fact that even though sparrows depend on humans, their association with us is only “commensal”. In ecological terms it means, that a small species benefits from the association – may obtain nutrients, shelter, from the other species, while not harming it, and where the host species remain unaffected.
Nature knows her ways. If nature intended something, it is flawless, unquestionable. The moment man tries to “fix” or even “improve” that organic arrangement, he loses that perfect equilibrium of life only mother nature is capable of. She doesn’t persuade, nor condescend. She just shows a consequence – we call it a lesson, and remember it. Well, mostly.
What do you think happened after the massacre of sparrows in China? A deadly famine. The kind, world had never seen before. One that killed tens of millions of people.
As it turned out, the sparrows ate not just the grains, but crop-devouring insects too. Killing of all those sparrows resulted in surging populations of insects like locusts and grasshoppers. Due to the lack of a natural predator they became unstoppable, went on to swarm the country, eating everything in their path. Crops started to fail catastrophically, grain production collapsed and a famine of historical proportions began. There was no food to eat, people starved, and died. Within a year, the campaign against sparrows was cancelled, the new order now, was to conserve them.
These ancient companions of ours might not be facing such direct hatred from humans now, nonetheless, their plights in our modern world are plenty. Climate change, habitat loss, air pollution, pesticides or electromagnetic radiation – to name a few. Monumental challenge of survival now lies ahead of this simple bird in the world of the present time that we are living in – where in just last 100 years at least 500 species have gone extinct and about 68% of the wildlife population is declined in last only 40 years.
Starting at around a decade into the present century, so much alarming was the sparrows’ disappearance from countries like England and India, it started worldwide initiatives like the World Sparrow Day (March 20) in 2010 to raise awareness on the issue.
Now that the world’s most common bird is fast becoming “rare”, we are valuing it like never before. Yet, when I see a sparrow today, it looks oblivious to all this fickle behavior of man. It has no worries for its future, or any grudges for the past for that matter. And yes, this human loving bird doesn’t seem to mind or judge my presence at all. It just chirps with that trademark curious disposition, as it always has. In this moment, alive.
In the words of Canadian Novelist Heather O’Neill:
Somewhere, a sparrow is singing in B minor.
Over the centuries, we kept changing our frivolous ways for the sparrows. They remain the same. Maybe there is something to learn?
Copyright ©2022 Gyaneshwari Dave