Silent Spring

A week ago I noticed a dark object arcing across the sky, at eye level from our 22nd-floor apartment in Shanghai. I just caught it in peripheral vision, rather than looking at it directly. Without thinking consciously, I began speculating: maybe a hawk? Maybe one of those turkey vultures that seem to show up against stormy springtime skies? Maybe just a crow, or a large and very dark pigeon?

Then I turned and saw what it was: a black heavy-duty plastic trash bag, swooping up and down in the turbulent wind. I thought a minute more and realized what I had been seeing but not noticing through the previous months: there are no birds in big Chinese cities.

OK, there are some. Since I've been looking for them, I've noticed a few each day. A friend who lives in a leafy area of Shanghai said that the birds have been noisy there recently. And no, I haven't been to every big city. But I've been to a lot, and the ones I've seen have hardly any birds, compared with big cities in North America, Europe, or most other parts of Asia. Once recognized, it is a dramatic texture-of-life difference.

Is this still an aftereffect of Chairman Mao's sparrow-killing campaign of the Great Leap Forward, to keep the greedy birds from eating up China's grain? A result of ongoing efforts against bird flu? It can't just be due to predation by cats, since not many of those roam wild either. Predation by people, who hunt for eggs? Simply and depressingly a sign of thoroughgoing pollution? I don't know. I will keep looking for evidence that my generalization is wrong.