A Thought on Small Birds
'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, February 2014
Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado
English Translation: Asia Club, WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko)
February is the time we can find birds more easily than usual in Japan. As there is less food in northern or mountainous areas, birds come down closer to towns and villages. We can watch them move around more clearly, for most tree branches are uncovered with leaves. More to our interest, as the mating season is coming nearer, many have even more beautiful plumage. Now it is a good chance to go out for photographing them with a camera, together with that heavy lens.
Some less-cautious birds continue their daily activities watch them with binoculars and a large camera. I cannot help feeling pity to a male bird turned down by the female he is wooing, or, on another occasion, I am somehow convinced that a male must be rejected because he is not good at making a nice nest. It is just like watching TV dramas in the living room. Watching a large bird grabbing food from or chasing off a small one, I always take the part of the smaller. Being “little” must be an advantage world-wide.
By the way, I wonder how small a kotori, small bird, is. I have consulted several Japanese dictionaries and learned that those “small in size”, such as Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Japanese White-eyes, Japanese Bush Warblers and Eurasian Skylarks are not the only birds called “small”. Birds moving down from the north in autumn, like Bull-headed Shrikes, Brown-eared Bulbuls, White-cheeked Starlings and Nauman's Thrushes and Daurian Redstarts are also listed as “small birds” in addition to tits including Varied Tits, who come down to villages from the mountains.
We, Japanese, enjoy making a short poem called Haiku. As a general rule, each haiku contains a kigo, a seasonal word or phrase that is supposed to symbolize the season of a poem. If you look into Saijiki, a glossary of kigo, you will come across with kigo, “kotori (small birds) kuru (come)” and “kotori kaeru (return)”. The first implies autumn, and the second, spring. Thus, it seems “kotori” collectively means the birds that come in autumn. This is why a little bigger birds like Brown-eared Bulbuls, White-cheeked Starlings and Nauman's Thrushes belong to the group of “kotori”.
I am not so familiar with kigo, but I personally tend to associate spring with the phrase “kotori kuru”. Much larger birds like swans, geese and ducks also come in autumn, and that is probably why I don’t like to think of winter birds as small birds. Birds in Japan move around the country in various ways. Some are winter birds, some are summer visitors, and others are only passers-by. Some move from the north to the south or from the mountains to villages. Suppose you see a lot of birds flying in a group in autumn, they may either have just arrived or be gathering before migration. If kotori only refers to birds that show up in villages in autumn, I somewhat feel uneasy as it might be improper to make a haiku of small birds that come in other seasons or fly away to the south in autumn. Kigo may sound rather complicated and difficult, but it is a handy tool to provide a clear image of the season as the background immediately within a limited number of syllables. Although I still have a slight discomfort that the kigo, “kotori kuru”, does not refer to small birds coming to blooming trees in spring, I would like to keep my mind as flexible as possible so that I can appreciate enough that I live in a country where a lot of birds come and go.
Female of Daurian Redstart (Phoenicurus auroreus). Photo: HIH Princess Takamado