Scaring Crows in Wuhan

The balcony of my apartment on Hubei University campus faces south, and overlooks a tract, of several acres I would guess, obviously serving some experimental agricultural purpose.  What purpose, or under whose aegis, I have yet to ascertain, but even the students from farm families agree, that, though the crops are commonplace, the personnel are not.  True, there are tillers-of-the-fields, with straw hats protecting from the sun.  But their activities are not routine — like tying plastic bags over the flowering heads of thousands of rape-seed plants to ensure, I would have to guess, that the plants don’t engage in promiscuous sex.

The real tip-off are the occasional gentlemen, in white lab-coat attire, who occasionally saunter about and probe the fields.

Most intriguing, though, are the human scarecrows.  I have encountered scarecrows in China before, more-or-less occidental in form, and I shall have to consult Joseph Needham on the possibility that scarecrows were invented here, as most everything of any use seems to have been.  But these are animate scarecrows, and not just humans flailing about to drive off birds, but specially equipped and disciplined artists.  There equipment is remarkable: kite-like creations with coloring and trailers, I guess, designed to resemble raptors, but mounted on long flexible poles, which, when whipped about, causes the bird or prey to climb and dive menacingly at altitudes 30 feet or 40 so.  And so these fellows — I use the term generically, becasue I cannot make out their gender — patrol the fields for hours on end, with their birds darting all about.

Most remarkable, though, is the birds’ call.  When I first heard it, I alarmingly misconstrued it to be the call of some tortured dog.  Having identified the source, and considering the setting, I revise my opinion to imagine it indeed represents the cry of some bird of — not that I’ve ever heard such.  The pitch is high (but providing no clue as to the gender of its originator), with an uncanny mixture of repeated cadences and startingly new modulations.  And amazing in its carrying power.  From the furthest corner of the field, it arrives through closed windows and doors into my apartment with chilling clarity.  And this usually commencing at an early hour, when I am apt still to be lingering in bed.

I can only hope some laryngologist has earned a Ph.D. by studying the mechanisms by which this sound is generated, and its spectral and energetic properties.  Unfortunately, though after some deliberation, I left my portable recorder in Atlanta, rationalizing that I was going to an urban jungle, not to a real one.

Macabre calls and darting kites aren’t the only implements of the anti-bird policy.  The occasional volley of shots, as if from a rifle, but probably retorts from fire-crackers, augment the attack.  Even more seldom a great crackling crash joins in.  Its generation would seem to involve striking a large, suspended piece of sheet-metal, akin to the thespian device for emulating thunder. But I have not actually seen the device; my only witness is auditory.

In fact, the whole ensemble recalls some of the features of Chinese opera.  And this, doubtless, is no coincidence.  Mao’s approach to preventing birds — as opposed to cadre — from robbing the peoples’ grain was wholesale slaughter.  The consequences of this ecologically intemperate policy have been ameliorated, to judge from the bird population in my relatively bucolic niche of the Hubei University campus.  The theatrical confrontations seem to hark to a time when the discord between heaven and earth was more raucous but less lethal than in Mao’s era.

I have no idea who is winning the battle, or how the outcome is measured.

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