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Born Free USA Blog
Adam M Roberts

Born Free USA Blog

by Adam M Roberts,
Chief Executive Officer

When it comes to animals, Adam Roberts not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. Since beginning his animal advocacy career in Washington, D.C. in 1991, Adam's ambition, tireless involvement, and profound knowledge of conservation and wildlife issues have cemented him as a go-to voice for protecting animals — and he has elevated Born Free USA to the respected and impactful organization that we know today. Adam's compassionate, informed, and forward-thinking blogs will surely motivate you to join us in our fight to Keep Wildlife in the Wild.

Chairman Mao’s Bird-Brained Idea

Published 12/24/10

One of our four top priorities at Born Free USA is to protect wildlife in their natural habitats. We recognize that nature is an extraordinarily intricate web of connections among plants and animals, and that humans — especially starting with the Industrial Revolution — disturb that balance all too often.

Take, for example, Chairman Mao.

A Chinese propaganda
poster exhorts children
to use slingshots
to kill birds:
“Everyone come and
fight sparrows!”

This week’s New Yorker magazine ("Staying Power," a compilation of Mao biography reviews by Pankaj Mishra) reminds us how Mao Zedong, as part of China’s “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962, “mobilized the masses” by among other things declaring war on four supposed pests: flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows.

Sparrows were targeted because they ate grain seeds. “The Chinese were exhorted to bang drums, pots, pans and gongs in order to keep sparrows flying until, exhausted, they fell to earth,” Mishra writes.

But at some point during the “Four Pests Campaign,” word got to Mao that sparrows eat more insects than seeds. He told his people to stop the slaughter. That reprieve came too late for an estimated 1.37 million birds.

With fewer sparrows to eat them, locusts proliferated to the point that the crops they ate — combined with the crops that didn’t grow due to unfavorable weather — translated to the Great Chinese Famine, which caused up to 45 million human deaths. Ouch!

I asked my colleague Monica Engebretson, Born Free USA’s senior program associate in Sacramento, what she thought of all this. She e-mailed back:

“In dealing with conflicts involving naturalized, feral or ‘invasive’ animals, it is important to remember that irresponsible human actions are usually the true cause of the problem. We must ensure that our policies toward such animals are not equally irresponsible. Birds, whether native or not, should not pay the price for our mistakes.”

There’s no denying that every one of us, every human being on the planet, messes to some extent with the balance of nature. We drive and ride on roads that cut through wilderness area, we fly in planes whose jet engines obliterate birds, we eat food transported in trucks that run over insects and other animals, we buy things that are made from materials extracted at great environmental cost from the ground — and on and on. We must do what we can to limit our impact, however, in order to make life on Earth as accommodating as is possible for all creatures.

Including sparrows! With National Bird Day fast approaching, there’s no better time than now to reflect on the countless ways our feathered friends enrich our lives. Even Mao learned that lesson — eventually.

Blogging off and Happy Holidays,
Will Travers

“A robin redbreast in a cage puts all Heaven in a rage” — William Blake.

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