Remarkable Recovery: The Modern History of Japan’s Environment

The Return of the Crested Ibis

Environment Society

Kin, Japan’s last crested ibis born in the wild, died in 2003. Her demise did not mean the extinction of the species, however, as researchers in China were successfully breeding other wild crested ibises that they had discovered earlier. This article explores the relationship between the Japanese people and the crested ibis, Nipponia nippon.

The Last One

I went to see Kin at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center in the spring of 2003 only to find the last crested ibis in Japan blind and weak, huddled in a large cage about 2.5 meters square.

Kin, Japan’s last crested ibis born in the wild, at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center. (Photo courtesy the center; © Jiji)

I learned of Kin’s death on October 10 of that same year from the TV news. She had apparently flung herself against aluminum siding at a height of about 1 meter and died from hitting her head. Perhaps she had hoped to make her weakened body fly once again in the great skies. She was 36 years old, well over 100 by human count.

Kin’s death reminded me of another. The place was the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio; the date, September 1, 1914. Martha—the last remaining passenger pigeon, named for the wife of George Washington, the first US president—fell from her perch in the zoo and died.

Prior to this, passenger pigeons numbered more than 3 billion and darkened the skies over the eastern part of the United States when they migrated. But they were decimated for their meat and their habitat destroyed as American pioneers cut down forests and cleared land. By 1901, wild passenger pigeons had disappeared.

Fortunately, Kin was not the last crested ibis, and her death did not mean the extinction of the species. The same species of crested ibis was found to still exist in China, and Japan was able to artificially breed more crested ibises from pairs brought over from China.

The First “Genuine” Wild Fledglings in 42 years

On the island of Sado, artificially bred crested ibises have been released into the wild for some time now, and at last on June 1, 2016, it was confirmed that the chicks of a pair of wild-born parents had fledged. This marked the long-awaited return of “genuine” wild crested ibises, and the Ministry of the Environment rangers and conservationists who had waited to witness the moment broke out in cheers of joy.

The last sighting of wild crested ibises fledging was made 42 years ago in 1974. Since the 2016 sighting, six more wild crested ibis chicks have fledged. Crested ibises born in captivity and later released have identifying bands on their legs, but those born in the wild do not.

A crested ibis carries materials for a nest.

Another 34 chicks born of captive crested ibises released into the wild were also found to have fledged in 2016, bringing the total number of ibises born in the wild to 40, a record-breaking number since the first birds were released in 2008. We are likely to see the number of crested ibises without leg bands increase even more hereafter.

The ultimate goal of release to the wild is to achieve generational changeover without human aid. Hirono Yukio, a ranger at the Environment Ministry’s Sado Nature Conservation Office, says the most recent fledging of crested ibises in the wild marks a major turning point in the release program.

Ancient Ties

The crested ibis is a figure deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture. The oldest record of the bird is found in the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), a history of the nation compiled in 720. Three references are found in the text to toki, the Japanese name for the crested ibis. The term appears in the names of imperial tombs and is written with the characters 桃花鳥, meaning peach-flower bird—an allusion to the delicate pink of the crested ibis’s plumage.

In another ancient work, the Engishiki, a book of laws and rituals compiled in 927, it is noted that the legendary Sugari no Ontachi, a sacred sword of the Ise Grand Shrine, is to have two crested ibis feathers wrapped around its hilt when used in ceremonies.

This includes the ceremonies revolving around the rebuilding of the two main structures in the inner sanctum of the Ise Grand Shrine, a major event that takes place every 20 years, known as the Shikinen Sengū. This practice was started in 690 by the Empress Jitō and has continued for 1,300 years, interrupted only by the Warring States period (1467–1568). The most recent rebuilding, the sixty-second, took place in 2013.

It is customary at this time to also replace the shrine treasures and furnishings, but in 1993, at the time of the sixty-first rebuilding, a problem arose. A new sacred sword had been prepared, but there were no crested ibis feathers to wrap around its hilt. This was the same year the crested ibis was declared an endangered species. Eventually, the problem was solved with feathers provided by someone who just happened to have them.

A Pest to Farmers

By the Edo period (1603–1868), references to the crested ibis are found in a number of writings. Records of the Kaga domain (present-day Ishikawa Prefecture) report that 100 crested ibises were brought over from Ōmi (today’s Shiga Prefecture) in 1639 and released along the river Oyabe to provide feathers for arrows. There is one theory that the wild crested ibises last seen on Sado Island and the Noto Peninsula were descendants of these birds.

Crested ibises feature, too, in the chronicles of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Tokugawa jikki, which include detailed descriptions of hunting excursions.  Mention is made twice of the capture by the eighth shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, of crested ibises on a falconry hunt along the banks of the river Nakagawa in Higashikasai (currently Edogawa in eastern Tokyo).

Records of the Hachinohe domain (Aomori Prefecture), the Hachinohe han nikki, suggest the crested ibis was considered a major pest. An entry dated June 14, 1737, notes that a report has been received from a magistrate’s office of “several instances of toki ruining rice crops.” In response, the magistrate is ordered to provide rifles to the three affected villages with instructions “that no birds other than toki may be shot.”

Finally, there are songs of the Tōhoku region and Niigata Prefecture called tori oi uta, literally “bird-chasing songs,” that were sung to drive the crested ibis away from valuable crops. These were usually sung by children, but the animosity towards the birds is palpable. A tori oi uta that used to be sung in Ojiya, a city in Niigata Prefecture has these lyrics.

Ora ga itchi nikui tori wa
dō to sangi to ko-suzume
otte tamae ta no kami

The birds I hate the most / the toki (dō), heron (sangi), and sparrow (ko-suzume) / spirit of the paddies, please drive them away

Nothing Special

The Kyōhō-Genbun shokoku sanbutsuchō shūsei (Kyōhō-Genbun Registry of Productions of the Provinces), compiled at the order of the eighth shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, was an exhaustive survey of animals, plants, and minerals across Japan. This document reports populations of crested ibis throughout the country, specifically Hokkaidō, the Tōhoku and Kantō regions, parts of the Tōkaidō region, the northern parts of the Shinshū, Hokuriku, and Kinki regions, and the island of Tsushima in the Kyūshū region.

Philipp Franz von Siebold was a German who came to Japan in 1823 to work as a doctor at the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki. He was a keen naturalist and shipped to the Netherlands numerous specimens of Japanese flora and fauna that he collected during his stay.

Among these specimens were two stuffed crested ibises purchased by Siebold at Lake Biwa when he accompanied the head of the Dutch trading mission on a trip from Nagasaki to Edo. Siebold left a note saying, “Crested ibises are a common sight in the paddies and fields of this area.”

Later, C. J. Temminck, the first director of the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, Netherlands, gave a scientific name to the stuffed birds sent by Siebold, and in 1871, the crested ibis was officially given the scientific name Nipponia nippon. The Ornithological Society of Japan formally adopted the genus and species names in 1922, thereby confirming the crested ibis’s standing as one of Japan’s national birds.

On the Way to Extinction

The custom of eating meat spread throughout Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. This, accompanied by a sudden increase in the Japanese population and the resulting development of the country, contributed to the decimation of the crested ibis and the loss of its habitat. The decline was further exacerbated by the Japanese government’s vigorous promotion of industry and the growing demand for down exports. Down futon quilts were valued domestically for their softness as well, to the point where production could not keep up with demand, leading to a relentless overhunting of the bird.

The fine feathers of the crested ibis were particularly prized for feather dusters used in silkworm factories, for decorations in tea rooms, and for butsudan, family Buddhist altars. They were also exported to Europe to be used as decoration on ladies’ hats. The meat of the crested ibis was less popular, as it was not tasty and the bloody soup that resulted when the meat was boiled was considered revolting. Still, it was thought to have medicinal properties and was often prescribed as a tonic for female chills and anemia.

Guns and Pesticides

The massacre of the crested ibis was accelerated by the invention of the Murata rifle in 1880. While the possession of rifles was limited in the Edo period to samurai and hunters, from the Meiji era onward the common people could get licenses to own guns, leading to an upswing in the popularity of hunting. By 1895 there were more than 200,000 licensed hunters in Japan, a number that remains about the same even today. These hunters played a major role in the fate of such native birds as the crested ibis and the stork.

In just four decades, from the 1860s to the turn of the century, the crested ibis population was pushed almost to extinction. By the 1910s, sightings of the once-common bird were few and far between. A report published in the 1925 issue of the Niigata-ken tensanshi (Natural Products of Niigata Prefecture) declared the crested ibis, along with the great white egret, to be extinct as a result of overhunting. After the prefecture offered a reward, two ibises were finally discovered in 1931.

As fuel became scare during the Second World War, natural habitats were further destroyed and there were no places left to build nests. After the war, around 1950, pesticides came into common use on Sado Island, decimating the loaches, frogs and other water creatures on which the crested ibis fed. In the mid-1960s, traces of pesticide were found in the carcasses of two dead ibises.

Extinction Threatened Throughout Asia

The crested ibis was once widely distributed throughout east Asia. According to the Shiji (Historic Records) written by the Chinese Han dynasty historian Sima Qian, the First Emperor of Qin kept crested ibises in his gardens. The birds could be found in a broad area of China, from Jilin Province in the north to Fujian Province in the south, and as far west as Gansu Province. Their numbers had rapidly decreased by the first half of the twentieth century, however, and the last sighting in China was made in 1964 in Gansu.

In Russia, crested ibises were found along the Amur and Ussuri rivers and around Vladivostok. Their number began to dwindle from the latter half of the nineteenth century, disappearing completely around Khabarovsk by the Amur River in 1949, and around Vladivostok in the early 1960s. The last sighting of a crested ibis in Russia was along the Ussuri River in 1981.

There used to be a large crested ibis population on the Korean Peninsula as well. At the beginning of the twentieth century a large flock of several thousand is said to have been sighted. In 1978, four crested ibises were discovered in the demilitarized zone, and plans were made to capture them for transport to the Conservation Center on Sado. But the birds had disappeared by the next year before the plan could be acted on. Sightings were also reported in Taiwan up to the mid-twentieth century.

The fate of the crested ibis was sealed by its habit of building nests atop trees in the satoyama forested areas near cultivated lands, and by its reliance for food on the amphibian creatures, crustacea, fish, and insects to be found in nearby rice paddies and wetlands. Begining in the mid-nineteenth century, human development of the wetlands, the cutting of forests, the use of pesticides in rice paddies, and the increase of hunters all led to the rapid decline of the crested ibis population.

A crested ibis searches for food in a paddy readied for planting.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 10, 2017. Banner photo: a crested ibis searchers for food in a snow-covered winter rice paddy. Photos © Tsuchiya Masaoki except where otherwise noted.)

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