Friday, June 8, 2018

Freedom! On Japanese bush warbler and Chinese hwamei

Everybody loves Uguisu , Japanese bush warbler. They are sparrow-sized greenish bird whose male warbles in a pure voice. This Wikipedia description nicely summarizes their status in Japan. Yeah. When in a forest of early February we hear their “Hooo-hokekyo (the above Wikipedia entry has links to listen their warbling),” we all become Shelley and feel “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Actually, the Japan Meteorological Agency designates warbling of Uguisu as one of the subjects in their phenological observations, signaling the end of winter. Uguisu is a sedentary bird staying all year-round in lower altitude area of Japan, as long as we provide them proper bushes and forests. Only the males sing pretty in order to declare his territory and for his female partner to nurture their chicks safely. So, normally, their songs can be heard when they are taking care of their kids. That’s that. Though, these days we can hear “Hooooooooooo-hokekyoooooooooo!!!!” really continually especially in the forests of urban area, like Yokohama Citizen Forests. Is it due to global warming that may encourage Uguisu to procreate whenever? May be … but there is another reason.

Er, no, it’s not a Japanese bush warbler,
 but a Japanese tit which also trills for territory.

There remains historical records saying that in 1708 people brought Chinese hwamei, Gabicho 画眉鳥 in Japanese, to Nagasaki 長崎出島 from Qing, aka China. Traditionally in China they are popular as middle-sized cage birds by their flashy brunette feather with distinctive eye-make and clear and brash warbling. Probably, Japanese has imported them for quite some time from China as business for the small population of aficionados. Then, during a very brief period of the 1970s, they became popular among ordinary Japanese as cage birds. Many were traded in from China of Mao Zedong. Surprisingly perhaps at that time, unlike traditional Japanese cage birds, they sing very loudly though sumptuously. The bird rapidly lost the favor of the Japanese market. Faced with a large inventory that required feeding, it is said that the importers dumped Gabicho in the forests of cities, like Tokyo or Osaka. Gabicho is originally from sub-tropical China and South-east Asia, eating seeds of grasses, insects and sometimes frogs which can be found at the ground level. It means they don’t survive snow-covered winter in some areas of Japan, but can thrive in Japanese population centers under the global warming. They multiplied near cities. The National Institute for Environmental Studies of Japan defines them as one of the “100 of the Japan’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.” By the Invasive Alien Species Act, now it is prohibited to make them pets. Human state of the things aside, Gabicho is clever birds. In China, they warble as their owners teach them to please the master. They came to Japan, and perhaps found the superstar status of Uguisu as their role model. In the urban forests of Megalopolis Tokyo, they sing in the phrase of Uguisu, but far louder, and all year long. “HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-HOKEKYOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” There are many Gabichos and all sing like that in the forests of Yokohama, occasionally next to Uguisu of (comparatively) modest voice.

Niiharu Citizen Forest in early summer.
 Well, yeah, Gabicho likes such forest, I guess.

Telling you the truth, I didn’t know anything about the thing between Gabicho and Uguisu until I visited Niiharu Citizen Forest 新治市民の森 for a spring nature observation meeting in April 2015. That visit became the topic of my very first post of this blog, so it was a kind of memorable experience for me. At that time, all the participants of the gathering, who looked like experienced nature observers, called the warbling of very loud “HOOOOOO-HOKEKYOOOO!!!!” as something like “Oh, that so tasteless GABICHO!” with a slight snobbishness in their voice. Gabicho is a direct reading of Chinese characters in Japanese. I guess in Chinese their name would sound appropriate for a popular, flamboyant, and middle-sized bird. In Japanese, combined Ga and Bi, i.e. the continuous voiced consonants, sounds too strong to have a connotation of pretty warbling of birds. I had an impression of Gabicho as something insensitive invader-imposter to our peaceful forests. As I learned Japanese forests and the status of Gabicho in Japanese law, my impression for them could not improve.

My first visit to Niiharu Citizen Forest

Whatever, Gabicho is sometime fearless. Since last year or so, one Gabicho frequently welcomes me along my way to attend the activities of the Lovers of Niiharu Citizen Forest. (Oh, but s/he never game me a chance to take a photo!) It seems to me one tree in the forest is its favorite for weekend morning. It simply hops from a twig to a twig without warbling, perhaps searching for breakfast. I could quietly observe its morning ritual for a minute or two, and the bird flies to another place. It’s a relatively large bird, twice as large as a sparrow, so *2 for Uguisu. The bird has very bright brunette feathers and Cleopatra like large white eye-make that gave me an impression of exotics. You see? Saying hello is so important for everything. Regular encounters with a Gabicho in Niiharu Citizen Forest gave me a chance to think about them in my own words. Yeah, it may cause havocs in Japanese native biodiversity (although the theory is still speculative). But the birds didn’t come here of their own volition; they are not migratory birds. They are here because humans wanted to earn nice sum of money, and abandoned them when they found the birds did not behave as the masters liked. Still, Gabicho is singing as their former owners taught “To be a cute Uguisu!” It’s … an extremely sad story. I’ve started to wonder how a Gabicho warbles if it can be free from all of these nonsenses. Then, quite recently I find it out.

A caterpillar of Blue Admiral on Smilax china in Niiharu Citizen Forest.
 Probably it looks very appetizing for Gabicho …

One weekend in this May, Kanagawa Forest Instructors visited Hadano Pass Forestry Road 秦野峠林道 for bird–watching. If it is OK, Hadano Forestry Road connects Yadoriki Community やどりき in the foothills of Mt. Nabewari 鍋割山 with Kurokura Community 玄倉 on the shore of Lake Tanzawa 丹沢湖. Unfortunately, the area has very fragile bed rocks typical of Tanzawa 丹沢, and it is now partially open due to massive slope failures. In other words, the place is very deep, less-visited mountains. We walked leisurely but attentively to find wild birds. Tanzawa in May is the place for rearing chicks. Thick green of leaves hide the singers from the eyes of predators and bird-watchers, but we could hear many kinds of birds, at least 30, warbling. We certainly identified the voice of Japanese bush warblers, cuckoos, Japanese green pheasants, Japanese flycatchers, and even Treson sieboldii. Brown-eared bulbuls and Japanese tits were everywhere, and there was another very clear and well-projected voice frequently sounds from the forests. One of my senior instructors said, “Hey, don’t you think it sings like ‘Jiyuu-ni Natte Ureshii! 自由になってうれしい!’ (in English, ‘It’s great to be free!’)? It’s Chinese hwamei.” The scales fell from my eyes.

Somewhere here in Tanzawa,
 there is a Japanese flycatcher singing …

Actually, Gabicho is not the only ubiquitous bird our grandparents brought from China. Take Chinese bamboo partridge. It was first imported as pets from southern China, and then in 1919 released wild in the forests around Tokyo for pleasure hunting. They were once commonly observed in the south of Miyagi Prefecture 宮城県, and still a popular wild bird among hunters now. Yet, I have heard whispers it has become difficult recently to find them during a bird-watching event. Too much economic development might make the dwellings for them uninhabitable, or, they simply reduced their numbers in their foreign land ... I don’t know if the frequent presence of Gabicho in such a deep mountain is a threat to the ecosystem of our National Parks. I was simply glad the relatives of Niiharu’s Gabicho could rejoice with their freedom in the wild. It’s too depressing to see somebody spellbound of his / her abusive deserter, isn’t it?

Chinese hwamei (Gabicho) in a play-garden
 near Niiharu Citizen Forest

If you find an environmental issues in Tanzawa, please make a contact with Kanagawa Natural Environment Conservation Center 神奈川県自然環境保全センター

657 Nanasawa, Atsugi City, 243-0121 2430121 厚木市七沢657
Phone: 046-248-0323

You can send an enquiry to them by clicking the bottom line of their homepage at

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