On Saturday 13 December 1958, the People’s Republic of China declared war on a bird. Mobilisation was total: 600 million enlisted for the fight. Their target was a tiny songbird, between five and six inches long: the Eurasian tree sparrow. It might seem like overkill, writes Stephen Moss in his history of human-avian relations, but in the eyes of China’s leaders the sparrows more than deserved it. An estimated 1.5m tonnes of grain disappeared down the gullets of said feathered gourmets each year. China was short on food – and short on patience. Peace was never an option.
Such extreme enmity, Moss reassures readers, is historically an exception, not a rule. Not that there’s much of a rule to be found in our millennia of coexistence – apart from how consistently we get birds wrong. Scavenging habits – and a certain native glamour – helped ravens coast into human mythologies as helpful companions across neolithic Eurasia. But ravens aren’t interested in us at all. Self-absorbed and self-interested, they root through rubbish heaps and tear at corpses with the same eerie grace. Another of Moss’s 10 test cases, the bald eagle, is emblematic of freedom, courage and the American way. Yet in reality, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out to his fellow founding fathers, bald eagles are cowardly parasites. For an alternative national symbol, Jefferson proposed a bird known for courage and faithfulness: the turkey.
Turkeys would have their day eventually, but they’d appear on dinner plates, not presidential seals. The bird forms the culinary heart of Thanksgiving, the holiday marking the Pilgrim fathers’ arrival on America’s shores. Their association is justified, Moss says, but for an unexpected reason: the pilgrims took a clutch of the birds with them from England. Turkeys originate in the New World, but reached Europe in about 1500, a century before the Mayflower’s voyage. Plump, toothsome and easily tameable, they quickly became a staple of European diets: the earliest American icon to win international fame.
The “age of discovery” wasn’t often fun for those being discovered, of course: the dodo being a case in point. Martyred en masse by hungry Dutch sailors, it was wiped out around 1662. Insult was added to extermination: it took decades after the tubby little creature’s annihilation for anyone to realise it was gone for good. It took even longer for scientists to work out what it actually looked like. Birds – thin-boned, tender-fleshed, often none too smart – are objects of cruelty as often as they’re subjects of fascination. Sometimes they’re both: the snowy egret suffered near extinction at the hands of Victorian milliners.
Avian influence on civilisation isn’t limited to chic headgear. In Moss’s telling, the modern world is built on bird excrement. The faeces of the guanay cormorant, referred to poetically as ‘‘brown gold”, and commonly as “guano”, was a fertiliser of world-changing effectiveness. For the industrial, imperialist west of the late 19th century, guano opened an escape hatch from fears of mass starvation. For indentured Chinese labourers condemned to excavate guano in remote nesting sites for years, it opened a gate to hell. And while guano’s heyday lasted only a few decades, farmers got hooked on high-yield harvests, and chemical fertilisers were a logical next step.
Darwin’s finches are another example of a featherweight species punching above their weight. Evolution would be unthinkable without the birds of the Galápagos – each adapted to match the microhabitat of the isle it settled on – setting off a proverbial lightbulb above Charles Darwin’s head. And even the much-loathed pigeon played a part on history’s stage, ferrying messages across borders and frontlines, pinion-powered telegrams with biological GPS. Finding their way home with an accuracy we still struggle to explain, pigeons illustrate on a small scale Moss’s central point: we don’t really understand birds.
Those misunderstandings can have a terrible human cost. Take China’s war on sparrows. With the campaign of extermination boiling on for two years, and up to a billion birds dead from poison, strangulation, beatings and plain exhaustion, victory seemed at hand. Experts anticipated a bumper harvest. Then one brave scientist raised the alarm. The estimates were wrong, he said. Tree sparrows ate mostly insects, not grain. And with the peckish passerines nearly extinct, an exploding locust population descended, ravenous, on China’s farmlands. As the expected feast turned into famine, China’s leaders made a rapid U-turn. The “war on sparrows” ended in a draw.
But the arrogance that inspired it endures. Humans think they understand the natural world, Moss argues, and so they imagine they can control it. That fantasy of control starts with little things, such as mythological ravens or feathered hats; it ends in mass extinction and climate catastrophe. Moss isn’t optimistic about our future, but he asks readers not to despair. The next chapter in our history with birds has yet to be written; we still have time to change our ways. We may not understand birds but we can try to live with them. As this delicate, stylish book explains, we need each other more than we can know.
• Ten Birds That Changed the World by Stephen Moss is published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply