1 Aug 2020

Oriental Dollarbird: a curious case of mistaken identity

For more than a thousand years, Japanese citizens assumed the Oriental Dollarbird was responsible for a beautiful and distinctive call heard at night. But a chance radio broadcast revealed the true, unlikely culprit. From "Through the Lens”, Fujingaho Magazine, August 2020

A pair of Oriental Dollarbirds displaying courtship behaviour  © HIH Princess Takamado
A pair of Oriental Dollarbirds displaying courtship behaviour © HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, August, 2020

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko, Ueno Naohiro)

This year, more birds are visiting our garden than usual. It is fortunate that I am able to enjoy birdwatching, even in the present “Stay at Home” situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This time, I would like to show you photos of the "real" Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis, which migrates to Japan in the summer.

The photos were mainly taken either from a tent set up in a forest, or from a spot where we could watch the tall tree in which the bird often perches. Oriental Dollarbirds are so vigilant that, in order to photograph them, extreme caution is required. Moreover, as photographing of this bird is usually done in the mid-summer, we have to wait motionlessly and patiently for them to appear, being particularly careful to stay hydrated and armed with insect repellent spray and bug-proof clothing.


Courtship feeding © HIH Princess Takamado


Due to its beautiful appearance, for more than a thousand years the Oriental Dollarbird was believed to be the species responsible for the distinctive night-time call that sounded like “Buddha, Dhama, Sangha”, the three jewels of Buddhism. This is why it is named “Boo Pau Saw” in Japanese. However, it was later discovered that the bird that sings “Buddha, Dhama, Sangha” is actually the Oriental Scops-owl Otus sunia, the smallest owl living in Japan, based on reports from two NHK radio listeners, both of whom listened to a live broadcast of the song in 1935.

One listener reported that the Oriental Scops-owl which he raised at home had started singing “Buddha, Dhama, Sangha”, inspired by the radio broadcast. The other reported that, after listening to the song on the radio, he heard the same song outdoors and shot the bird responsible, which was identified as an Oriental Scops-owl. Although the age-old mismatch between the appearance and the voice of the birds had been cleared up, the names of the birds were never changed. So, since then, there have been two birds nicknamed the "Oriental Dollarbird": one based on its appearance, and one based on its call.


Nesting in a nest box set up by pupils of Sakae Junior High school © HIH Princess Takamado


Japan, where it rains in all seasons, is originally a nation of forests. Ever since before the Jomon Era [14,000–1,000 BC], the western part of the country has been covered with evergreen broadleaf trees, and the eastern part with deciduous broadleaf trees. There were rivers running through these forests, and lakes and wetlands scattered throughout. In this forest country the Oriental Dollarbird greatly prospered in the past. During the Yayoi Era [1,000 BC – 300 AD], forests on flat land were cut down for rice cultivation. As open village environments were created, the Oriental Dollarbird started moving, first to the forests in the village, then into the divine forests around shrines or precincts of temples. With the recent acceleration of environmental deterioration, the birds have come to breed even in the holes in man-made constructions like bridges and the poles of power lines, and inevitably their population is declining. The Oriental Dollarbird, which has lived in Japan since ancient times, has seen drastic habitat loss in the past 50 years.

Nowadays, citizens have made efforts to protect the bird by putting up nest boxes nationwide, and they are already having an impact. 90 percent of the Oriental Dollarbirds now living in Japan breed in nest boxes, thanks to which their decline has slowed somewhat. On the other hand, continuing to put up nest boxes forever is not a desirable situation. The final goal of the preservation of the birds is to restore the forest habitat around villages and farms, where they can breed without human help.

This time, I selected the photos I had taken over several years in Sakae village at the north end of Nagano prefecture, where even now the Oriental Dollarbird breeds in birch forests preserved to prevent avalanche. The Oriental Dollarbird has been designated the bird of the village, used as a symbol for the area, and its portrait is drawn at the entrance of the local tunnel. In Sakae village, people are working on the conservation of birch forests, where diverse living creatures can thrive. They are trying to foster birch forests with plenty of tree cavities, so that the Oriental Dollarbirds can live more safely.

If similar forests are created throughout the nation, and the village environments of the past can be recovered little by little, the air would be cleaner again and we could enjoy living in good health. I hope the day will come when you, readers, will be impressed, watching Oriental Dollarbirds flying over the forest high in the sky.  


A flying Dollarbird with a forest in the background © HIH Princess Takamado