white-tailed eagle
Winter is a good time to enjoy birdwatching in Japan as that is when many species of migratory birds, especially ducks and other waterfowl, spend their time in Japan. In the spring they fly off to their nesting grounds further north.

Japan is an important stop for birds using the East Asia-Australia flyway. Birds such as golden plovers and warblers stop in rice fields in Japan during their migrations between wintering areas in the southern hemisphere and breeding places in the Arctic.

Yata-garasu is a giant three-legged crow that played an important role in Japan’s creation myth. The son of the Sun Goddess, he led the descendants of the sun Goddess to the homeland of the Japanese in Nara Prefecture. Yata-garasu is the featured on the emblems worn by the Japanese national soccer team.

Pheasants are the national bird of Japan. In 2008, a South Korea group decapitated pheasants in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to protest Japanese claims on a groups of islets claimed by both Japan and South Korea.

Peafowls (peacocks) have overrun the small resort island of Kohamajima in Okinawa prefecture. They are blamed for the decline of Kishonoue’s giant skink, the largest lizard in Japan.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Steller's Sea Eagle National Geographic ;Bird Life International ; ARKive photos and videos ; Blakiston's Fish Owl Blakiston's Fish Owl Project ; Bird Life International ; ARKive ; Crows in Japan Clever Crow Video ; Treehugger Article About Using Bees to Fight Crows ; New York Times article on Crows in Japan


Good Sites on Wild Animals: Animal Info ;Japan Animals Blog / ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive

Bird Guidebooks “Guide to the Birds of China” by John MacKinnon (Oxford University Press), “A field Guide to the Birds of Russia and Adjacent Territories” by V.E. Flint (Princeton University Press)and a “Birdwatchers's Guide to Japan” by Mark Brazil (Kodansha). Birding Websites: Wild Bird Society of Japan (Japanese-only website): ; Birds of Japan Gallery by Monte Taylor Birds of Japan ; Birding Hotspots JapanBirding Hotspots Birdwatching in Japan Birding Pal ; Kantori Lode Kantori Lode ; Marimo marimo.or .

Wading Birds and Raptors

Japan's national bird
Wading birds such as herons, egrets, and storks do well in rice paddies, where they feed on fish frogs, crawfish and aquatic insects. For them paddies are like a kind of marshland. However the numbers of "common" white egrets, great gray herons (blue herons), and black-crowned night herons are declining due to the deterioration of the rice paddy environment and loss of forest nesting sites.

Wading birds are birds that wade in water that reaches part way up their legs. Large waders include herons, storks, ibises, spoonbills, flamingos and cranes. These birds have long legs, a long bill and wade in water to feed. The shape of the bill is often the key to identification.

Large waders are associated with wetlands. They typically stand in shallow water and feed on frogs, fish and insects. For large prey such as snakes, fish and frog, the bird’s maneuver the prey insides their mouth so it goes down head first. Otherwise the legs might get caught up in the bird’s throat.

Even though wading birds spend much of their time in wetlands they often have forest nesting sites. Many large waders migrate considerable distances to escape the cold. Their migration is prompted by a search for food and the fact their large bodies are difficult to keep warm.

Many endangered raptor species, including falcons and goshawks, have taken up residence in high rises in Tokyo and other cities, using pigeons as their primary food source.

Herons and Egrets

There are 61 species of heron. They have straight bills and long legs and differ from other birds in that they have specialized feathers, called powder down, that never molt but fray at the tip and grow continuously.

Herons lack the large oil gland in their skin that most birds have and use to anoint their feathers and keep them water repellant. Instead herons condition their feathers with fine talc-like dust, powder-down, that is produced by the continuously fraying of the tips of special feathers scattered through their plumage.

Some herons use bait like a fishermen. They collects some bread or a worm and throw it on the surface of a lake. When small fish come to feed the herons snatches them.

Egrets are a kind of heron. The word egret is derived from the term “aigret,” which described the filamentous breeding plumes found in six species of white heron. The definition has since been broadened to include several species of herons that lack the glamorous plumes and are not white Egrets were once slaughtered for their plumes which they displayed only during the breeding season and were valued decorations for women’s hats.

Herons in Japan

Herons are common sights in Japanese rice paddies. The black-crowned night heron, or goi-sagi, and the gray heron, or ao-sagi are the two mostly widely distributed species. Their favorite time to catch food is at dusk. Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Standing still in the shallows or in the reeds along the bank, the herons' varying shades of gray, blue and black blend perfectly into the fading light and deepening shadows. Often, one does not even become aware of them until they move.”[Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, September 23, 2010]

“Herons are superb hunters, standing patiently in ambush, waiting for an unwary fish or frog to wander into striking range. Then their neck snaps out with lightning speed. Unlike birds of prey, which rip their prey apart, herons simply swallow everything whole. To do this they often have to reposition the captured frog or fish so that it slides down their throat head first. Otherwise the legs or fins could get hung up and choke them to death.”

“Both these species are gray and blue-black, with plumes extending backward behind their head. The gray heron, however, is a much larger bird, nearly a full meter from tail to tip of bill as opposed to only 60 cm or so for the night heron. Also, the gray heron has yellow eyes and bill, while the night heron's eyes are fiery red and its bill black.”

“In addition to being great hunters, these herons are among the most eerie of creatures. To begin with, their large, fierce eyes have an almost hypnotic power. Also, when they take to the sky they utter hoarse "Guwah! Guwah!" croaks that can only be described as "murderous," or at least "bone-chilling." Not surprisingly, the Japanese have since long ago considered these herons to be "ayashii," a wonderful term that when used in this sense carries the connotation of being "spooky," "weird" or "eerie." The kanji character for ayashii, which can also be read as "kai," is used in combination with another character, "yo," which means to be "bewitching" or "enchanting," to form the compound "yokai" “a general term for various types of Japanese fairies, ghosts, goblins and demons.”

“Eerie heron appear in two of Japan's most famous books of classical yokai. In Sekien Toriyama's 1776 Konjaku Gazu Zokuhyakki (The Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Past and Present), for example, is a drawing of a yokai known as the Aosagi no Hi, or "Flame of the Grey Heron." A heron sits hunkered down on a tree branch, emitting rays of eerie light. A very similar portrayal of a night heron, called the Goi no Hikari, or "Glow of the Night Heron," comes from Shunsen Takehara's 1841 Ehon Hyaku Monogatari (A Hundred Illustrated Tales).

“Herons, along with bitterns and egrets, are members of the Ardeidae, a family of aquatic wading birds with about 60 or so species worldwide. Japan, endowed with rice paddies and various other rich waterside habitats, is home to about 20 species. Bitterns are smaller birds with shorter legs and necks, usually colored a speckled brown. They are shy and secretive, and so excellently camouflaged that they are rarely glimpsed.”

“Friends often ask me about the difference between the English words heron and egret, both of which are referred to generically as sagi in Japanese. Actually, the use of these two terms is based more on custom than on biology or taxonomy. Generally speaking, white birds are called egrets, and darker ones herons. The largest of the white forms, for example, is commonly called the great egret (dai-sagi in Japanese), but is actually in the same genus as the gray heron (Ardea). On the other hand, a black form called the eastern reef heron (kuro-sagi) is classified in the same genus (Egretta) as the smaller white forms like the little egret (ko-sagi) and intermediate egret (chuu-sagi).”

The gray heron (A. cinerea) is common clear across the Eurasian continent. A separate but very similar-looking and closely related species, the great blue heron (A. herodias), inhabits North America. This causes some confusion, as the Japanese name for the grey heron, ao-sagi, literally means "blue heron."

Storks in Japan

Oriental white storks were once common in Japan. Like cranes they are regarded as a symbol of good luck. They are two meters long and weigh up the five kilograms. They are also found in China and the Khabarovsk region of Russia.

Storks are tall and heavy and have a thick black bill. They are sometimes seen foraging around rice paddies, feeding on loaches. crustaceans, crabs, frogs and insects. Their eggs incubate for a month Unlike species of stork found in Europe and Africa, Oriental white storks do not migrate.

The number of Oriental white storks declined as a result of hunting, loss of natural wetlands and the use of agrochemicals in paddy fields, which killed the off loach, the bird's main food, as well as dragonflies and aquatic insects, which it also eats. Being at the top of the food chain they consumed concentrated doses of agricultural chemicals eaten by their prey. Marshlands where they lived were altered by river straightening and concrete on river banks.

By 1956, only 20 Oriental white stork were left. The bird s became extinct in the wild Japan in 1971. The last one in Japan died in May, 1971 after being attacked by a dog.

Return of Storks to Japan

The Hyogo Prefectural Homeland for Oriental White Stork, a 165-hectare, $35 million breeding center and park was set up near the city of Toyoka in Hyogo prefecture began artificially breeding Oriental white stork in 1965. The Japanese birds had levels of agrochemicals in their bodies and produced only unfertilized eggs. The programs was helped immeasurably by storks donated by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

By 2005, there were 118 birds, all of which had been bred in captivity. The lived in fenced off areas and had their wings clipped so they wouldn't fly off.

Nine storks from Japan’s captive breeding program were released in September 2005. The birds can catch fish for themselves in waterways. They were not trained per say but were given “an option to act a natural way.”

The stork project on Toyoka has been deemed success as many of the released birds managed to survive. Storks released by the facility behave differently. Some stay close to the center where they get free food. Others are more adventurous and venture far from the facility. The hope is to have a substantial number living in the wild in 2020. The project can not be deemed a complete success until released birds mate and produce offspring.

In May 2007, a white stork hatched in the wild for the first time in 43 years. The chick hatched from eggs laid by a 9-year-old female stork released into the wild in September 2006. The female had paired with a 7-year male with the two making a nest on a 12.5-meter-high nesting place set up by a civic group. Other storks had laid eggs but either they fell out the nest and were broken or did not hatch because they weren’t fertilized.

Steller's Sea Eagle

The Steller's sea eagle is one the world's most spectacular looking birds. Black, except for white stripes on its tail legs and wings, it is slightly larger than the American bald eagle, with a wingspan of up three meters, a body length of one meter, and weighing between 5.5 and 9 kilograms. They often look bigger because they often fluff up their feathers for better insulation.

Steller's sea eaglets are black and fledge in 90 days. Their striking white shoulders, tail, legs and forehead do not develop for six to eight years.

Inhabiting the frigid coastal waters off of eastern Russia and Hokkaido, Japan, they gather in the winter at Nemuro Channel to feast on small fish known as o-washi in Japan, sometimes resting on platforms of sea ice. About 6,000 to 7,000 Stellers' Sea Eagles remain, with about 2,000 gathering to feed off the northeast coast Hokkaido in the winter. Many follow fishing boats or gather in the morning near fishermen to collect leftovers.

Steller's sea eagle are named after George Steller, a German naturalist who explored the Kamchatka in the 1740s. They have been carefully studied by Russian biologist Alexander Ladygin.

Stellar sea eagles have problems with lead poisoning in their wintering ground in Hokkaido. Their main prey walleye pollack has been reduced by overfishing. Many eagles have turned to eating sitka deer carcasses left by hunters that are filled with lead shot. Environmentalists suggest requiring hunters to use copper bullets or shotgun shells rather than lead shot.

Steller's Sea Eagle Feeding

Hundreds of Steller's sea eagles gather at Lake Kurilskoye on the Kamchatka Peninsula of eastern Russia in the winter. They spend most of their time perched in the trees and come to life during the winter sockeye salmon run, the largest in Asia. Steller's sea eagles sometimes have such difficulty finding in food in winter they starve but those that gather around Lake Kurilskoye sometimes are so gorged with fish they can't fly and naturalist have caught them by hand. [Source: Klaus Nigge, National Geographic, March 1999]

Klaus Nigge wrote in National Geographic: “Steller's sea eagles eat like sibling rivals — they seldom dine alone, and few scraps of food are won without a squabble...Eagles begin each day watching for magpies and crows. Although equipped for hunting, eagles prefer to let other keen-eyed birds lead them to beached salmon. The scouts get food in return. An eagle's massive can tear open a fresh salmon's tough skin, allowing smaller birds to sneak a meal."

Some naturalist believe that the eagles fight over food because robbing a fellow eagle of food is easier than hunting. Others feel they do because they like to fight.

Nesting Steller's Sea Eagles

Steller's sea eagle's nest only in eastern Russia, in remote places like the island of Bolshoy Shantar. Nigge wrote: "Each spring eagles return to the same nest with the same partner. Favorite branches on lookout trees — ones with the best views of their nest and fishing spots — are rubbed bare by sentry duty."

"Branches, dried grass, and moss form the a ten-foot-wide platform, more than big enough for a kingsize bed. Days are silent but for the chicks; begging cries and its parents warning calls to eagles that fly to coast."

"Before the salmon run begins, the adults wade into tidepools for small fish to carry to the nest. I saw only the mother feed the eaglet. She tears food into pieces and gently holds them in front of her chick.

Blakiston's Fish Owl

Blakiston's fish owl is the world's largest owl. Found in east half of Hokkaido and the Russian islands of Sakhalin, Kunashiri and Etorofu, it has a wing span of 1.8 meters and measures 70 centimeters in height and weighs four kilograms. The Ainu gave it many names and revered it as a guardian of villages and a god that cries at night and protects the country. The Japanese have traditional associated owls with happiness and good luck and are fond of buying owl ornaments.

Blakiston's fish owls like most owls are nocturnal. In Japan they primarily eat freshwater fish such as “ayu” (sweetfish), salmon and trout as well as the occasional rodent. Male and females call each other with a closely synchronized “ bo-bohhh”, “ bo-bohhh” that sounds likes they are coming from a single bird.

Blakiston's fish owl is seriously endangered. There are about 130 birds living in Hokkaido. This is better than 1984, when there were 30 or 40. Naturalists hope the number will increase to 200 in the not too distant future. To help them they have built over 100 government-funded nesting boxes and handful of winter feeding stations, where naturalists leave out fish because the owls can not catch fish in frozen rivers. There are plans to make tree corridors to link forested areas together.

Reasons for the Blakiston's fish owl's decline include overfishing, cars, the loss of habitat thorough deforestation — particularly in old growth forests where the owls do best — and development — particularly the damming and draining rivers. The owls used to be found all over Hokkaido but their numbers began to fall in the late 19th and early 20th century when the old growth forests were cut down and the damming and channeling of rivers eliminated most of the large fish runs.

The Blakiston's fish owl is also known as the Blakiston's eagle owl. It is named after Thomas Wright Blakiston, a British businessman and amateur naturalist who lived in Hokkaido in the late 1800s, and ironically has as much to do with the bird’s demise as anyone. After bringing lumber equipment half way around the world to harvest timber in eastern Siberia he was denied permission to take the trees there in 1861 and instead came to Hokkaido where he hauled away timber from the island’s riche old-growth forests.

The Ural owls is one of the most commonly seen and heard owls in Japan. It has been said its hoot gave birth to stories for yokai monsters

Ducks in Japan

Seven species of duck are commonly spotted in Japan even in big city parks: 1) Spot-billed ducks are large, with brown makings and a distinctive bright orange spots on the tips of their bill. They only ducks that stays in Japan throughout the years, they nest in reed beds along the water’s edge and are unusual in that males and females have the same markings. 2) Pintails are large ducks with a brown head and a white mark running up their side. Their extra long tails make them easy to identify. 3) Mallard males have a yellow bill and an irredecent green head. Females are drab brown.

4) Shovellers are medium-size ducks. Both sexes have very long, wide comb-filled bills used to strain algae and plankton from the water. Males have a white body with wide chestnut band in the belly. Some say they look a little like mallard except for their distinctive bill. 5) Green-winged teals are very small ducks with chestnut brown heads and iridescent green patches curving around their eyes down to the neck. They also have a yellow patch at the base of their tail. 6) Pochards are medium-size ducks with brownish red heads and bright red eyes, black breasts, white or gray bodies and black tails. 7) Tufted ducks are small with iridescent black heads, breasts and backs and white bellies. A long black crest runs down the back of the head. The eyes are yellow.

Most ducks in Japan winter there and breed on the lakes and tundra of Mongolia and Siberia in the summer. In some places farmers uses “duck traps” to catch teals and ducks. The farmers first attract birds to a pond by sprinkling grain on the water and continue doing that for a while until the ducks become comfortable at the pond. Then one night the farmers hide in a tent and when the ducks have settled spring out and catch the ducks with nets.

Swans in Japan

Both whooping swans and whistler swans winter in Japan. Swans are the largest of all waterfowl. There are eight species and they can be found in all the continents except Africa and Antarctica. The northern species are known for their loud calls. Their names — trumpeter, whooper and whistler — reflect this. In Australia there are black swans with soot-black plumage, white primaries, and a coral colored bill. Swans, geese and ducks are all members of the same family or birds.

In Western culture, the swan is a symbol of beauty and elegance and they look that way when soar in the air and cruise along the surface of the water. But looks can be deceiving: to maintain their graceful glide swans have to paddle their feet hard underwater and take offs and landings takes a great deal of effort and space and even then aborted take offs and crash landings are not uncommon.

A male swan is called a cob. A female is called a pen. Young are called cygnets. A group is used to be called a sloth. Most swans build huge nests. Some trumpeter swan nests even float. Swans are monogamous except when unable to produce offspring and then they may chose new partners. Both sexes help care for the young. Several species carry their cygnets on their backs.

Swan Characteristics

Swans fly with their long thin necks stretched out straight. This contrasts with egrets who fly with their necks tucked in an S-shape. When relaxing they often place their beak into their feathers, To keep their feathers snowy white takes constant preening and cleaning. It not uncommon for swan to sit in a river and splash water over its wings for five minutes and then retire to the bank and groom its feathers for another five minutes — and repeat this process several times a day.

Swans emit a wide range of sounds from high-pitched noises of young swans to bass notes of old males. "The "swan song" of dying was long thought to be a myth but has been heard from wounded swans as they descended to earth.

Swans generally need a running start to take off. When landing they glide across the water’s surface, their webbed toes braking in the water and their flapping wings braking in the air.

Swans use their wide bills to strain floating algae, small invertebrates and pieces of edible plant material from the surface of the water. They can not dive or swim underwater like cormorants or grebes but they can upend themselves with their tail sticking up in the air and fully extend their necks downward to reach plants at the bottom of the pond, sometimes violent twisting their neck to uproot plants.

Whooper and Whistling Swans in Japan

Whooper swans can measure 1½ meters from head to tail, with a wingspan of over two meters. They have thick bodies and can weigh up to 12 kilograms, making them one of the heaviest flying birds.

The whoopers in Japan breed in eastern Siberia and winter in unfrozen ponds, lakes and bays in Japan. They begin mating after reaching age of three or four and build large nests from reeds and sedges with the female incubating the eggs while the makes forages for food. The young are grey in color. They stay with their parents during the first winter.

Great flocks with thousands of whopper swans stop in eastern Hokkaido in November and December on their way from Siberia to warm areas in Honshu. To help swans survive the winter local people often scatter grain in pond water to make sure they get enough to eat. Hundreds of swans spend the winter at Kussharo Lake in Akan National Park in Hokkaido where hot springs keep parts of the lake unfrozen throughout the winter and busloads of tourist throw bread and chips and food to them. The swans have gotten so used to the feeding ritual they sometimes eat out of people’s hands.

Whistling swans are slightly smaller than whoopers and look almost exactly the same except the yellow markings on their beaks stops before their nostrils while the markings on whoopers extends past the nostrils Whistling swans tend to breed in the arctic tundra, while whoopers prefer boreal forests further south.

Mute swans — which have an orange bill with a distinctive black hump at the base — are sometimes seen in lakes and marshes. They are a European species that have escaped and naturalized in Japan. They tend to stay in the same place all year. During the mating season males can be quite aggressive.

Okinawan Rail

The Okinawan rail (“yanbarukuina”) looks sort of like a blackbird but can only fly a little and has a bright orange beak and legs and whitish makings on its breast. Designated a national treasure, it is about 35 centimeters tall and weighs 400 to 500 grams. There are in danger of becoming extinct, primarily as a result of being preyed on by house cats and mongooses brought to Okinawa to prey on poisonous snakes.

The Okinawan rail only habitats the Yanbura region in the northern part of the main island Okinawa. It was only discovered in 1981. Each years its habitat shrinks as a result of development and predation by cats and mongooses. In 2004, residents and veterinarians set up a sanctuary for the bird. As part of an effort to save the birds, cats are registered and have a microchip planted them. If it is found that a cat has been abandoned its owner can be fined.

About 1,000 Okinawan rail remain, down from1,800 counted in 1981. An artificial breeding program is being set up to save it.

Rock Ptarmigan

The rock ptarmigan is a rarely-seen bird that lives in dwarf pine forests in elevations above 2,000 meter in mountainous areas of Hokkaido, where the snow is six meter deep in the winter. In the winter they fed on the tops of plants that pierce the snow. In the spring the males gather around pine mounds, where they hope to attract females with displays that involve making frog-like bellows and puffing out their chests.

There population of rock ptarmigan is estimated to be around 2,000. Their habitat is so harsh that 80 percent of chicks are lost to cold or predators such as crows, ermines and civets. The areas they live in are so remote that scientists who study them have to be expert mountain climbers. Some places they live now can reached by tourists via cable cars.

Japanese Pheasants

The Japanese pheasant is a large bird and is the national bird of Japan. The male is prized for his fearless courage and fighting spirit, while the female is idolized for her selfless devotion to her nest and brood. In one famous Japanese fairytale, Momotaro, a pheasant accompanies the boy hero on his successful mission to subdue a group of oni demons. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, February 17, 2011]

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The pheasants, or kiji, are among the most spectacular birds in the Japanese countryside. Their heads and necks are shiny purple, and decorated with a bright red fleshy wattle. Their chests are a deep iridescent green, wings bluish-grey with reddish brown markings. The incredibly long tail is light pinkish-brown with dark barring.”

“In the past, the kiji were considered to be a local subspecies of the common, or ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), that is distributed clear across the Eurasian continent, and has also been introduced into North America. Most ornithologists, however, now classify them as an independent endemic Japanese species (P. versicolor), called either the green pheasant or Japanese pheasant. Researchers divide the Japanese birds into four different races based on geographical distribution.”

“Pheasants are members of the avian Order Galliformes (kiji-moku in Japanese), which also includes grouses, ptarmigans, rails, partridges, quails, turkeys and chickens. Most of the 250 species found worldwide are heavyset birds with plump bodies, short rounded wings and powerful legs. They spend most of their time on the ground, and are strong runners but mediocre fliers. Many forms are capable of only short bursts of flight, which they employ as a last-ditch method to escape predation.”

“The males of many galliform species are extremely colorful, with ruffs, wattles, combs and other fleshy attachments adorning their head. They engage in elaborate mating displays, and in many species also in violent fights over territorial and mating rights. Sharp horny spurs (kedzume) sticking out from the back of their legs are used as lethal weapons in these fights, and can result in severe injury or even death to the loser.”

“Japanese kiji begin their mating season toward the end of winter, conveniently right after the hunting season is over. Males can be seen strutting their stuff in open hatake fields, usually within a quick glide of the nearest woods. In addition to their loud calls, the males proclaim their territory by drumming, a deep vibrating sound produced by beating their wings against their bodies. A violent confrontation often occurs when two equally matched males meet along the borders of their respective territories. Some of these fights, which involve fierce body-slamming and kung-fu style kicks with the sharp spurs, have been recorded to last up to several hours.”

“Female kiji, considerably smaller and colored a drab brown, move around freely, passing through the territories of several males. Each male puts on an ostentatious display of his finery, but it is the female who decides which suitor she likes best. After mating the female builds a simple nest, usually well-hidden on the ground in dense brush. She relies on her drab brown color to blend in with the background. The male has nothing further to do with protecting the eggs or raising the chicks, but the female will remain on the nest even as danger approaches.”

“Pheasant eggs are incubated for a period of three weeks to a month, and the entire clutch hatches out all at once. The chicks are able to walk almost as soon as they hatch, and begin flying in a few days. The mother leads her brood, which may start off with as many a dozen chicks, on forages for food. Pheasants are ground feeders, concentrating on seeds and other vegetative material but also taking insects and other small invertebrates as well.”

“Although pheasants are shot in large numbers each year, there is no danger of them becoming extinct. To the contrary, more birds are released each year than are harvested, and local populations are on the increase. Farmers frequently report seeing male pheasants feeding on young snakes, and increases in pheasant populations may be having a detrimental effect on the ecological balance.”

Japan is home to four other native galliforms; the copper pheasant (yamadori), rock ptarmigan (raicho), hazel grouse (ezoraicho) and Japanese quail (uzura). The other popular hunting gamebird, the Chinese bamboo partridge (kojukei) is not a Japanese native at all, but was introduced here from China in the early 20th century. As the early spring mating season approaches, their cries are as loud as the pheasant, but the birds themselves rarely come out of the dense brush they prefer to live in. To Japanese ears the kojukei's call sounds like "Chotto-koi Chottokoi" (lioterally "Come here for a minute").

Bull-Headed Shrike, the Thorn Impaler

The bull-headed shrike is a medium-size but heavy-set bird, with a thick neck and broad head that is brownish-gray in color and a thick black or very dark brown eye stripe — is commonly seen in Japan. Males show a distinctive white spot on their wings, which can be seen in flight and also when the bird is perched. Females lack this patch.[Source: Kevin Short, Yomiuri Shimbun. September 15, 2011]

Kevin Short wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Shrikes are also famous for engaging in the curious practice of impaling their prey on sharp thorns. This behavior, called hayanie in Japanese, suggests several interpretations. The simplest of these is that lacking the impressive talons of true raptors, the shrikes use impaling as a method of stabilizing their prey while they tear it apart. This explanation may work well for larger prey, such as fish, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as mice or moles, but I have also seen fairly small insects, that could easily be swallowed in one or two gulps, impaled on thorns.

Another commonly cited interpretation is that the hayanie behavior is just a method of storing away some food for the upcoming winter. Others, however, have suggested that the impalements might serve as a means of marking individual territory. In many areas, folk wisdom holds that the position of the local shrikes' hayanie can be used to predict the severity of the coming winter. The higher the impaled victims are placed, the deeper the snows will be.

Shrikes impale their victims on naturally occurring thorns, as well as on short, sharp winter buds. They also take advantage of human-made opportunities, such as stems and branches that have been neatly pruned with sharp scissors. Barbed-wire, of course, must seem to a shrike to have been specifically invented for this very purpose.

Short-Tailed Albatross

The short-tailed albatross is the largest seabird in the Pacific. It has a wingspan of two to 2.5 meters and walks in a staggering manner on land. It is easily caught in part because it so large it can’t easily take off on level ground; usually it launches itself by leaping off a cliff. The Japanese used to called it “aho dori” (“stupid bird”).

There used to be millions of short-tailed albatrosses but their numbers dwindled as they were hunted for their feathers, which were used for bedding and hats and clothes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For a time they were thought to be extinct. In recent years many albatrosses have been killed by long lines in Alaska. According to the Environment Ministry, there are 3,000 short-tailed albatrosses living in Japan.

The short-tailed albatross only breed on Torishima, one of the Izu islands, and one of the Senkaku islands. The feed primarily off the Aleutian Islands and in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. Another species, the black-footed albatross, is prevalent in seas around Japan, but only the short-tailed albatross is protected by the government.

The colony on Torishima was only discovered in 1951. Since Torishima is an active volcanic island, the ministry has been moving some albatross chicks from Torishima to Mukojima in the Ogasawara Islands, about 350 kilometers away, to increase their numbers. However, the ministry said it had not studied their genes. Each year about 500 to 1,000 of the birds bred on a steep slope of Torishima Island. Some short-tailed albatrosses are believed to have flown from the Senkaku Islands to Torishima, but it is not known if they are interbreeding. "To conserve gene diversity, an examination of the birds' genes should be conducted as soon as possible to prevent interbreeding," said Masaki Eda, associate professor of Tottori University, told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

New Breeding Areas for Short-Tailed Albatross

Because a landslide can easily occur where the albatrosses breed on Torishima island and the volcano on th island can erupt anytime, an effort is being made to move the birds to a new nesting site on Mukojima, an island 370 kilometers away in the Ogasawara Island that is much safer

In 2008, 10 one-month-old albatross chicks were moved from Torishima to Mukojima and artificially raised. In 2009 15 were moved. After leaving the island the birds have been tracked with navigation devices. The aim of the project is to turn Mukojima into a breeding site and get the bird to return there in the breeding season. A trial project with black-footed albatrosses brought to Mukojima from nearby Nakodojima has got the bird to return to their new breeding site.

As of February 2011, two short-tailed albatrosses had returned to their adopted homes on Mukojima. The birds returned three years after leaving the islands as relatively recent hatchling. The birds have been tracked with GPS devices. One of them, identified with band around its ankle, was filmed by coincidence feeding in the Aleutian Islands.

In December 2010, a short-tailed albatross laid an egg for the first time on eastern Island in Midway Atoll — about 2,200 kilometers northwest of Honolulu and 400 kilometers east of Torishima Island. A male helped the female take care of the egg. Short-tailed albatross decoys were placed on the island in 2000 as part of an effort to get the birds to nest there.

Albatross Population Rises to 3,000 on Torishima

In August 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The population of the endangered short-tailed albatross, a species designated as a special Japanese natural treasure, has recovered to about 3,000 birds on Tokyo's Torishima island, up from less than 200 more than 30 years ago, according to an expert. Toho University Prof. Hiroshi Hasegawa, who has been involved in protecting the birds on the island for more than 30 years, said the current number is large enough for their numbers to recover naturally. Torishima is known as the seabirds' largest breeding ground. The number of birds that left the nest this season rose to 353, a record high since Hasegawa's team started surveys in 1976. Hasegawa carried out his latest survey in April and May. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 22, 2012]

The recovery is believed to have been the result of greatly improved breeding rates, boosted by newly prepared breeding sites on the island. If the current recovery pace continues, the number of birds is expected to reach 5,000, a benchmark for avoiding the extinction crisis, by about 2018. Some chicks have been transferred to Mukojima island in Tokyo's Ogasawara Islands since 2008 to create another breeding ground, effectively putting eggs in several baskets so to speak, in the event that an eruption should occur on Torishima island. These birds also have left their nests, Hasegawa said. "The recovery is dreamlike as the number was less than 200 when we started protecting the birds," he said. "It took a long time, but I think our project worked well.”

New Short-Tailed Albatross Species Found

In October 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Scientists have long believed that only one species of ahodori, or short-tailed albatross, exists in Japan, but groundbreaking research has found there are probably two different species. The ahodori is a protected species in danger of extinction, and the discovery may affect a conservation and breeding project that has been carried out by the Environment Ministry since 1993. Research teams of the University of Tokyo and Tottori University found that short-tailed albatrosses on Torishima in the Izu Islands and the Senkaku Islands, the only two breeding places in the world, are most likely different species. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 10, 2011]

“The research teams' paper was published in an electronic version of Conservation Genetics, an international academic journal focusing on the conservation of genetic diversity. After analyzing gene samples from the bones of a short-tailed albatross unearthed on the islands, and genes taken from the seabirds' feathers at the two breeding sites, the researchers concluded the birds probably separated into two groups at least 1,000 years ago. Although identical in appearance, the birds nesting on Torishima and the Senkaku Islands differ enough genetically to be classified as separate species, the researchers said.

'Extinct' Birds Rediscovered on Ogasawara Islands

In February 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Bryan's shearwaters, rare seabirds formerly believed extinct worldwide, still survive in the remote Ogasawara Islands, a research group of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Ibaraki Prefecture said. Several hundred of the birds now inhabit the islands, which are hundreds of kilometers south of mainland Japan but officially part of Tokyo, according to the group at the independent administrative institute. Experts said the discovery proves the value of the ecosystem on the islands, which were added last year to UNESCO's list of World Natural Heritage Sites. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 16, 2012]

“The official Japanese name for the Bryan's shearwater is expected to be the "Ogasawara himemizunagidori" (Ogasawara little shearwater). It measures 25 to 30 centimeters in length, with long tail feathers and blue legs. Shearwaters spend most of their lives at sea, but make nests on cliffs or by making holes in the ground on islands during the breeding season.

“Bryan's shearwaters were believed extinct because the last one ever identified was found in the Midway Islands in 1991, and the last one before that was found in the same islands in 1963. However, the institute's analysis of the DNA of six birds found in the Ogasawara Islands since 1997 has proved they are Bryan's shearwaters.It is rare to rediscover birds once they are thought to have become extinct. The last previous case in Japan was the rediscovery of albatrosses in the Izu island chain in 1951. "We'd like to maintain Ogasawara's biodiversity, through extermination of predators such as nonnative rats," said Kazuto Kawakami, chief researcher at the institute.

Image Sources: 1) Monte Taylor 2) 4) 5) Japan-Animals blog 3), 7), 8), 9) Wolfgang Kaeler, International Wildlife Adventures 10) Hector Garcia

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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