1 Dec 2014

Flightless Birds

Okinawa Rail (Gallirallus okinawae). Photo: HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, December 2014

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Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, WBSJ Volunteer Group (TAKEUCHI Fumie, KASE Tomoko)

If asked about birds' features, a lot of people will answer that "they fly." However, not all birds fly, and the wings of each bird have the most suitable shapes for its way of living. For example, albatrosses have wings like gliders, which enable them to fly long distances skillfully on the wind near the surface of the water. The birds flying well in terms of altitude, not distance, are Demoiselle Cranes. Every year they fly over the Himalaya Mountains, whose highest peak is Mt. Everest about 8,000m above sea level. Hummingbirds, which are famous for their high-speed wing beats (about 50 times per second), are also excellent in flying; they can hover in midair as well as fly backward.

On the other hand, there are about 40 species of flightless birds in the world. Aves evolved from Dinosauria by specializing in flying capability, but the flightless birds are those which abandoned that capability. Alternatively, they developed swimming or running capabilities; for example, penguins swim free in the water just like fish, and most ratites including Ostriches and Rheas run very fast with their strong legs instead of flying. Besides, some birds living in the places such as outer islands where there is no enemy preying on them, even if they are closely related to flying species, tend to become flightless in case their feeding and breeding are possible.

The three species in the photos are all water rails, and flightless is only Okinawa Rail, which is endemic to Japan and inhabits the mountain areas of Kunigami County in Okinawa Island. Okinawa Rail has been designated as an endangered species; the primary concern about them is predation by mongooses, non-native animals. Moreover, the decrease in their numbers caused by traffic accidents is also a serious concern. Because water rails generally have strong legs, (and) the flightless ones in particular try to hide in the thicket or run away cutting across in front of cars when they meet cars on the road.

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How should we protect endangered species? The policies and the methods for that issue are so controversial that even people of goodwill often fail to reach an agreement. The important thing is that the local people realize the presence of such precious species and try to coexist with them. Therefore, I think all we have to do is to educate the local people and give priority to the field. If we put ourselves in birds' position, instead of arguing in the offices or the laboratories, the answer will come out by itself. Over a long period of history, birds have adapted themselves to the times and the circumstances, so the day might come when the flightless birds may evolve again to be capable of flying.

A "bird's eye view" means a panoramic landscape seen from a high altitude, but the flightless birds' eye levels are always low. Even if not from a high altitude, we can see the full view by taking a step backward. It is my wish that we become able to overlook the panoramic landscape not only from the sky of our longing, but also with our feet on the ground.

Bogota Rail (Rallus semiplumbeus) and Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus). Photo: HIH Princess Takamado

Read more Fujingaho articles by HIH Princess Takamado


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