The kids were playing in the park on a sunny late winter day when I noticed some movement in the sazanqua trees. Quietly moving closer, I could see a hint of green, and then the entire bird became visible. There was a single factor that allowed me to identify it immediately – the ring of white around its eyes. So the next 20 minutes or so were spent playing hide-and-seek with the Japanese white-eye.
Known locally as mejiro (目白 or, less commonly, 繍眼児), the Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus) is a commonly seen bird in urban parks. Measuring just 12 cm long, it is the third-smallest wild bird in Japan – only the winter wren and the goldcrest are smaller. It is found throughout the main islands of Japan and also in the Korean peninsula, China, Taiwan, and parts of Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.
It is an omnivorous bird, although it tends to limit its diet to fruit and nectar outside of chick-raising season.
The Japanese white-eye is known as a herald of spring. They are especially fond of the nectar from ume blossom. Ume trees begin to blossom around early February – New Year on the lunar calendar. Because the coldest period of the year had passed, this was considered the beginning of spring (although February has more than its share of freezing cold days and in these parts is the month with the highest number of snowy days…)
In addition, there is some confusion between the white-eye and the other bird associated with spring, the bush warbler (Horornis diphone) or uguisu (鶯 or less commonly鴬) in Japanese. These two are similar in size – the bush warbler only 2-3 cm longer – and silhouette. The bush warbler is known for its distinctive breeding call, but it is duller in colour than the white-eye, and is much more wary – to the extent of rarely being seen. People would hear the male bush warbler’s cry and see the beautifully coloured white-eye fluttering among the ume trees. As a result, there is a strong association between ume blossoms and bush warblers, when in fact the bird seen in the ume is likely to be a white-eye. (Bush warblers tend to eat insects and seeds and are unlikely to feed in the ume trees)
This confusion dates back centuries, manifesting itself in the old game of hanafuda right through to the present time – a Japanese Google Image search for bush warblers produces a lot of photos of white-eyes.
Further confusing the issue is the Japanese name for bright olive-green – uguisu-iro (literally “bush warbler colour”), when this colour actually matches white-eyes, while bush warblers are a duller shade of brown.
A playful and colourful bird, the Japanese white-eye was once open to collection, but this was outlawed in 2012. An illegal trade still exists, however.
I enjoyed my time watching the Japanese white-eyes flitting around and feeding, and cursed the fact that I didn’t have the good camera and lens needed to get some decent photos.