Posts Tagged ‘sparrows’

A Tiny Sparrow

September 20, 2009

Birds have inspired a lot of music.  Think of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, Vivaldi’s summer movement of “The Four Seasons”, the 3rd movement of Dvorak’s “American ” String Quartet, Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”.  The list goes on and on.  Here is a bird-inspired traditional folk song lamenting an unfortunate love.  Mary Travers sang it well and made you imagine that she wished to be a tiny sparrow.  Like bird song, her voice helped purify our ears.

The Great Sparrow Wars

July 14, 2008

Chairman Mao was not the world’s finest naturalist. But he was a man of action. Thinking that four kinds of pests were hindering his “Great Leap Forward” he decided to eradicate them all. Rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows all had to go. Sparrows earned Mao’s enmity because they eat grain and grain seeds and so, Mao thought, disrupted Chinese agriculture. He declared war on sparrows. Literally. He said: “Here is the method — we make our resolution, we coordinate our actions, we divide our tasks, we cut off the food supply, we set up a trap and we continue our battle of destruction.”

Chinese Poster of The Great Sparrow War

Chinese Poster of The Great Sparrow War

From a Shanghai newspaper, December 13, 1958:

“The Whole City Is Attacking the Sparrows.”

” “On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries. . . .In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. . . .150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques of shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”

All over China people were banging pots and pans, waving flags and disrupting the lives of sparrows. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs broken, sparrows and their nestlings killed by the millions. Literally. The People’s Daily exhorted the citizenry, “No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won. All must join battle ardently and courageously; we must persevere with the doggedness of revolutionaries.” Radio Peking played an anthem, “Arise, arise, Oh millions with one heart; braving the enemy’s fire, march on.”

Nobody knows how many sparrows died but the number was in the millions.

Initially, the harvests improved, but too many sparrows were killed. Not enough survived to keep the locusts and grasshoppers in ecological balance. The insects devoured Chinese crops. In the resulting famine more than 35,000,000 people died of starvation.

The Great Sparrow War was over. Mao declared victory and called the whole thing off.

Mostly, the Chinese were killing Tree Sparrows, close relatives of House Sparrows. Tree Sparrows and humans probably started associating with one another about 10,000 years before Mao. It was around that time that humans in the Yellow River Valley began rice farming. It was also when people in the fertile crescent of the Middle East switched from hunting and gathering to farming wheat. What we now call House Sparrows in North America and English Sparrows in Northern Europe began living with those humans about that time. Sparrows and humans have been together ever since. BNA declares, “. . .a sparse population of House Sparrows largely indicates a sparse population of humans.” Said differently, where there are a lot of humans, there will be a lot of sparrows.

The Chinese aren’t the only ones who have tried to kill sparrows off. Mao should have studied North America’s history of trying to eradicate House Sparrows. He would have saved himself a lot of trouble and the crops might not have failed, at least not as catastrophically as they did.

House Sparrows did not live on the North American continent until the mid 1850s when some enterprising, ignorant people imported 100 of them from England to New York City. Helped along by organizations such as the “Cincinnati Acclimatization Society” which thought that the, “enobling influence of the song of birds will be felt by the inhabitants,” the sparrows spread. The sparrows were so successful that an Indiana newspaper declared in 1883, “Let them all be killed.”

We’ll be back with the rest of that tale.

Auspicious Bird Watching

November 5, 2007

Today we add a new category category to our our blog blog. We call it the Department of Redundant Redundancies. Our title today is the charter member of the category. It is the result of one of the delightful synchronicities of blogging. A friend of a friend mentioned to our friend that “auspicious” means “watching birds.” Our friend, the blogger at , passed the information along to us for research.

His friend was correct.

Our word “auspice” is a combination of two Latin words “awi” and “specere.” “Awi” means “bird” and “specere” means “to observe” or “to look at.” Thus “auspicious” means to observe birds, so “auspicious bird watching” is redundant.

We get a lot of words from “specere”. Spy, espionage, despicable, [to look down on] specimen, spectacle, speculate, circumspect, conspicuous, expect, despise, retrospect, suspect, perspective and – one of our new favorites – transpicuous, which isn’t even in our spelling dictionary and means, “easily understood or seen through.” Our friend who told us about “auspicious” is transpicuous: He didn’t want to have to look up all these words so he tricked us into doing it.

From “awi,” we get osprey, ostrich, oval, ovary, caviar and bustard; but we wouldn’t call our friend a bustard just because he tricked us into doing all this work.

But back to more respectable birds. Another of the Latin words that comes from these base words is “auspicium” which means “omen” or “divination.” Romans watched birds and flights of birds for clues about the future. Thus Shakespeare has Casca say to Cicero:

Yesterday the bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market place,
Hooting and shrieking.

That was a bad omen, a bad “augury”; a word which means “portent” or “divination from omens”. (By the way, the “bird of night” Shakespeare referred to was an owl; another example of the bad but undeserved reputations of owls that Mr. Forbush talked about here.) Birds provided clues to the future. In Rome a body of officials known as “augurs” interpreted bird behavior and only political leaders were allowed to know how the augurs interpreted the omens. The augurs did not have it too bad. They were also priests who presided during Roman fertility rituals.

Finally, from this “auspicious bird watching” comes perhaps the best of all of Shakespeare and certainly the best literary reference ever accorded to sparrows. When Osric brings Hamlet the challenge from Hamlet’s uncle to fence with Laertes, Hamlet is worried and senses that something is wrong. Indeed, something evil is afoot but Hamlet does not know what. Laertes’ sword is poisoned and he intends to kill Hamlet. Hamlet is suspicious and tells his friend Horatio that something is “ ill. . . here about my heart.” Horatio begs Hamlet to pay attention to the omen and not go fence with Laertes. Hamlet’s reply is the reply that we all might like to make in the face of our own deaths:

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is it to leave betimes? Let be.

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