Oh Venerable and Sagacious Matthew Alice, Smoother of Furrowed Brow, Soother of Say, I Pray for the Quenching of Query Long Unsettled: I went to high school in Stuttgart, Germany in the late ’60s. At that time, there was a hugely popular rumor that Chairman Mao convinced the population that everyone should participate in the Great Leap Forward and kill ten flies every day to help rid China of a veritable plague of flies. According to this rumor, all that dutiful killing of flies worked, and China is pretty much a low-fly-population country. One of our company representatives just returned from Beijing with photos aplenty. In all the pictures of the open-air markets, I spied nary a fly. Whaddaya know about it? — Michael Faught, San Diego
Matthew Alice: My wife and I recently went to the Magic Kingdom in Anaheim. There were no pigeons or sparrows hopping around, eating the fallen popcorn or pecking at the cigarette butts. The sidewalks weren't so clean and well swept that there was nothing there to peck at. There were bushes and trees in the area for birds. So what's so special about Walt's world that keeps the birdies away? — Tim O'Connell, Santee
Hmmm.. .Mickey Maos. Disney meets the Cultural Revolution. I can just see the chairman in his black mouse-ears beanie, twirling on the teacups, reading to the sparrows from his little red book, convincing them it was their patriotic duty to go away. And I’m not surprised to find there’s more information available about China than Disneyland, so we’ll start there.
After the revolution in 1949, the government launched campaigns against vermin to bring good hygiene to China’s pestilent cities. And in 1958, Mao decided birds were eating too much of the country’s grain. All citizens were instructed to take to the streets, beating on pans to keep birds from roosting. Birds reportedly dropped out of the sky from exhaustion. Children were asked to bring two dead birds a day to school to prove their patriotism. Millions were killed, and China’s bird population didn’t recover for years. Nature, of course, gets the last laugh. It never occurred to anyone that once the birds were gone, the bugs would take over. A plague of caterpillars brought a pause in the war against the birds.
Mao was notorious for these campaigns, which included battles against rats, mice, flies, and dogs, as well as birds. Whatever population happened to be rebuilding would be the new target. And it still goes on. The most recent attack on flies began in 1992. I’m not sure that explains why your friend’s photos were bugless, but with the anti-pest consciousness in Beijing, probably just out of camera range was a Chinese patriot with a fly swatter.
And pigeon poop isn’t part of the antiseptic fantasy that is the Disney experience, but I don’t think Daisy Duck strolls the grounds banging on a wok. Though we may just have to guess. The inner workings of Goofyville are carefully guarded by loyal sentries. All phone lines lead to the publicity office, where ranks of indoctrinated elves offer the gospel according to the Little Red Book of Disney.
But I was privileged to experience a momentary system breakdown — a new elf covering phones — and my call was somehow directed to a real-life (sort of) person in the landscaping department. Striking fast, before word got out that the perimeter was breached, I asked landscape-person, “What’s with the birds?” “Oh, we had a...diversion program, they called it. Last year.” (Aha, paydirt!) “But I’m not sure the details can be given out to the public. Let me check.” Rats. Done for. I could hear alarms ringing and commandos converging on landscaping to take the invader into custody. I was deposited at the doorstep of publicity. The official Disney word is that the park does host some birds, but their populations are kept down by the crowds, the constant food cleanup, and the lack of bird-friendly plants and trees. No fruiting plants or other tasty landscape. The park also has few niches that would make good finch or sparrow nesting spots. About the “diversion program,” publicity claimed to know nothing. A quick call to the Orange County Audubon Society confirmed that Disney’s achieved a pretty birdless landscape, mostly by minimizing food sources. But the park is so biologically dull, the society doesn’t pay much attention to it.