Japanese Gardens and Birds

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Just returned from a three-week trip to Japan. Not a birding trip but I snuck in some birdwatching when I could. Mostly visiting cities and towns and villages, I had a look at several parks and gardens. Japanese gardens are attractive, neat, and clean, but perhaps overly so. One of the elements of Japanese garden design is to “avoid clutter.” Well, the gardens certainly do that. It was common to see gardens with trees bare of branches and no leaves except at the outside edges and top, few or no shrubs, and either bare ground or very low ground cover. The gardens were more than maintained, they were manicured.

Worker with a dust pan actually sweeping the ground.

Ornithologists have known for years that foliage height diversity is related to bird species diversity. That is, the more layers of vegetation there are, the greater the diversity of bird species. That makes sense because the more layers of vegetation there are the more food, nesting and roosting sites, and places to hide from predators and the weather there are. So homeowners interested in having more birds around are encouraged to maintain messy landscapes as conventional urban landscape management strives for a tidy appearance.  In Japan, with such orderly and clean landscapes, there are few birds in such environments. There’s virtually no place to nest and food is scarce with few seeds and insects.

In the photo at left, you can see the branches having been stripped off the cedar trees and lying on the ground. The cedars only have foliage at the very top.

But it’s not just gardens that seem to lack birds. One day on a several-hour hike of about four miles through what appeared to be a relatively unscathed forest environment, I saw nothing but an occasional Japanese Crow and Black Kite. No birds flitting from the ground or the bushes, no birds flying overhead, except for those few kites and crows. A site called Bird-watching in Japan says little about general bird-watching but emphasizes all the different places in the country you can go to see this or that bird. But on an everyday stroll, the rewards are minimal.

Driving home from the San Francisco airport, I noticed birds everywhere along or above the roadsides. Not a minute went by between bird sightings. In Japan, hours would go by before I saw anything different than a Japanese Crow. City people of Japan are missing out on one of the pleasures of nature, birds in their backyard.

Now I don’t want to leave you with a negative impression of Japan. It is a wonderful modern society with polite, hospitable, friendly, happy, and healthy people who care about their country. In three weeks I saw virtually no litter, graffiti, or homeless. Everything, and I mean everything, is in good to excellent condition and everything works extremely efficiently.

Two-thirds of Japan is mountainous and only about ten percent is residential, so wildlife is pretty much restricted to the mountains, having been driven out of the heavily maintained urban areas. If I ever go back, I’ll head for the hills.

2 thoughts on “<strong>Japanese Gardens and Birds</strong>”

  1. Welcome home Roger. Jon Aul goes to Japan yearly and he says the same. Not many birds. He hikes into the mountains too. Curious.

  2. Thank you Dr Roger for this extremely interesting first person account from a birder in Japan ( not having gone there in that specific capacity but as a visitor and observer. ) this is so interesting. Thank you

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