Searching for birds and bugs with a splash of color thrown in

Hainan Island, China


The open air markets were filled with slabs of meat.  Pork.  Freshly plucked chickens, soft white feathers blowing across the aisle.  Fish.  Duck.  Goat.  All butchered there on the concrete.  The blood pooled and coagulated while every so often someone turned the hose on it and rinsed it away.  The smell was sharp and raw, yet there was not a fly or a bug in sight.

During the sultry tropical evenings, we sometimes swatted away a mosquito or two but nothing excessive.  In the glow of yellow llights a few bugs circled but there were no swarms.

In the daytime, trucks rolled along Haikou’s wide streets spraying the landscape.  The coconut trees were painted white along the bottom to discourage pest infestations.

There were plenty of roaches but I’ve heard they can live through a nuclear attack.  If the big bomb drops, roaches will be the ones to inherit the earth.

In the mornings I rode my bicycle along the Nandu River.  I rode several miles, then turned around and came back without seeing a single bird the entire time.  With so few bugs to eat, this isn’t surprising.

During the three years I traveled through China I didn’t see hawks or raptors in the countryside, no flocks of crows flew up like black smoke from the cornfields, although here and there a sparrow might perch on a power line.

According to the Chinese government’s official web portal (http://english.gov.cn) “China has rich biodiversity, boasting the world’s largest number of bird species and gymnosperm varieties. “  It also reports how that biodiversity is threatened through a combination of over-exploitation, pollution, encroachment of habitat, and environmental changes.

The Lonely Planet Bluebook states “China has more bird species than any other country in the world.”  Where are they?
One day while traveling by train through the mainland, I asked the young woman sharing my berth if she knew what had happened to all the birds.  After thinking a moment, she said, “When I was a child, one of our jobs was to chase the birds from the fields.  It was always full of them.  But, they don’t seem to be there anymore.  Now, when I visit my parents and we go out to the fields, they’re not there like they were when I was a child.”

One biologist, Roger Lederer at Ornithology.com wrote to me after I questioned him,  “I spent a few days in Beijing a few years ago and also noticed the dearth of birds you have. I was only in Beijing for five days, but you would have thought I would have seen a few more birds than a couple of House Sparrows – but that was it.”  He theorized that pollution played a large part.  “Birds’ lungs are particularly sensitive to changes in the atmosphere.”  However, he also wrote that Hong Kong had a variety of birds.  I’ve also been to Hong Kong and it seems to be as polluted as mainland China.  Why are there birds there and not in China?

Mr. Lederer also felt that poverty played a part—a large number of wild birds are raised and killed for food.  In fact, one of the delicacies I often saw on the streets of Haikou were newly-hatched birds skewered on a stick.

He concluded the letter with the following: “In general, I have learned that there are three kinds of countries when it comes to the environment: 1)developed countries that more or less care for their environment; 2) undeveloped countries that are so poor and undeveloped that they can’t do too much to harm their environment; and 3) developing countries that use the environment and could not care less what happens to it. China is in the latter category, I think.”

Yet I am always reading about the conservation measures China is taking.  Two hundred and fifty wildlife breeding centers have been established throughout the country.  The red ibis bird population is increasing.   According to http://english.gov.cn/2006-02/08/content_182509.htm:  “As one of the earliest contracting countries to the Convention on Biological Diversity, China has been active in international affairs concerning the Convention and vocal on important issues related to biodiversity. China is also one of the few countries to complete the Convention’s action plans. The China Action Plan for Biodiversity Conservation, implemented in 1994, provided rules and regulations for many eco-environmental protection activities. According to the Law on the Protection of Wildlife, the highest punishment for crimes of damaging wildlife resources is the death penalty.”


My friends who have lived here all their lives tell me that they remember more bugs when they were younger.

“What happened to them?” They keep asking.

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4 thoughts on “Searching for birds and bugs with a splash of color thrown in

  1. Fascinating, Jordan, and a bit scary. As much as bugs bug us, they are a crucial part of the whole food chain, and the chain of life. I really enjoyed this, but it worried me at the same time!

    • Thanks, Jeanie! I found this piece in a computer file I haven’t looked at in ages. I forgot all about it, but I remembered the lack of birds. Another strange thing, for some reason Chairman Mao took offense and sparrows and began paying everyone to knock them off. A dearth of sparrows in China!

  2. Well done! And Mr. Lederer’s 3 categories are illuminating, aren’t they? My sister-in-law is from Shanghai, and she has been awestruck by the number of birds here in America. When she took my brother home to China for the first time, he was awestruck too – by the dearth of wildlife of any kind. He said when they took trains out into the country-side, they still saw no birds or other wildlife. Let’s hope some of those environmental measures will turn things around.

    • Interesting! The last time I was in China was five years ago–Hopefully, things are starting to change, but there is also more pollution than every which doesn’t do smaller creatures like birds much good.

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