January 29, 2012
The weather is clear, humidity low, and the air temperature comparable to the temperature in my fridge. (“Hey, close the fridge door – all the warm air will escape!”)
Crystals of ice line the edges of the banks along the Azuma river, and a lone heron braves the cold, standing motionless in the water, looking for a meal.
Further along my commute, I encounter wintersweet trees in blossom, and the flowers of sazanqua.
The coldest days of winter should be behind us – my water pipes have frozen up twice this year, and we’ve had one major snowfall, but we still have more than a month of winter left.
Further along as I reach an area of market gardens, next to an abandoned house I hear an unfamiliar bird call. I turn to see two birds in low flight. The one to the rear is a dull mixture of brown and grey. Had it been by itself, I wouldn’t be able to recognise it. But the lead bird has a vivid blue neck, bright red on its head, and a green body. Even at more than 20 metres I immediately know what it is.
A pair of green pheasants.
The green pheasant is Japan’s national bird. (Odd that the Japanese, who love the crane so much, choose a game bird closely related to the chicken…)
Known locally as kiji (雉or雉子), it is one of two endemic pheasants – the other being the copper pheasant (Syrmaticus soemmerringii) or yamadori (山鳥).
The name “kiji” is thought to be derived from “kigisu” and “kigishi”, which in turn appear to be a combination of the sound of the bird’s call (“kigi”) and an old Korean word for bird (“su” or “shi”)
The scientific community is still divided as to whether the green pheasant is subspecies of the common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus versicolor) or a separate species of its own (Phasianus versicolor). Those who take the latter view divide it into four subspecies.
Common pheasants have been introduced into Japan, and they can, to some extent, successfully breed with green pheasants. Common pheasants are also found outside the green pheasant’s range, e.g. Hokkaido.
Green Pheasants are found from Honshu through to Kyushu, primarily in forests, river banks and grasslands. They feed mainly on seeds, buds and leaves, but insects and spiders are also eaten.
They breed from spring to early summer, with males competing for territory. Nests are simple affairs, shallow holes dug in the ground and lined with dead leaves and grass. Typically 6-12 eggs are laid. Care of the eggs and chicks is carried out entirely by the female, and males may have several mates.
(I have seen birds with chicks in tow rush through the undergrowth in summer and wondered if they are pheasants. Researching for this entry leads me to believe so.)
Green pheasants are poor flyers, but have been clocked running at 32 km/hour.
I was surprised at the lack of obvious folklore surrounding the green pheasant. Apart from being a character in the folk tale Momotaro, references in some poems and songs, and appearing on the former ￥10,000 note, the green pheasant is best known is as a food source. The flat udon-like noodles popular around Nagoya are said to have originally been served with pheasant meat, hence the name “kishimen”, and peasants cooking pheasant (try saying that quickly 5 times!) on their spades are said to be the origin of sukiyaki.
Curiously, pheasants are believed to by extra-sensitive to earthquakes, and may be able to give warning (by a few seconds) of tremors and quakes.
When summer arrives, I’ll be on the lookout for pheasant chicks.