Oriental white storks, a special protected species in Japan that once vanished from the wild in the 1970s, are making a gradual comeback, with some 1,000 sightings of the birds from Aomori to Kagoshima prefectures over the past six years.
The presence of the birds is a sign that organic farming is functioning, as they feed on frogs and loaches that coexist with other living creatures in the rice paddies of organic farms. As such, they have been seen as “environmental barometers,” offering hope to organic farmers, according to those familiar with the birds.
Oriental white storks became extinct in the wild in Japan in 1971. In 2005, the Hyogo Prefectural Government launched a project in the city of Toyooka to release storks that had been artificially bred into the wild. According to the Hyogo Prefectural Homeland for the Oriental White Stork, 27 of the birds have been released so far, and these birds have given birth to 36 offspring. Some have not survived, but including the nine that left their nests this year, officials believe there were 47 of the birds in Japan as of Nov. 6.
This year the Hyogo facility has received reports of sightings of the birds in Nagasaki, Niigata, Gunma and Aomori prefectures. On April 14 this year, about a month after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, 62-year-old former agricultural cooperative worker Shinji Kobayashi, a resident of the Miyagi Prefecture town of Marumori, photographed Oriental storks in a local rice paddy. Bands attached to their legs by the Hyogo Prefectural Homeland for the Oriental White Stork indicated that they had flown there from Toyooka, some 590 kilometers away.
Marumori is about 60 kilometers away from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, and farmers in the area have suffered from rumors about radiation. Kobayashi sees the arrival of the storks as a symbol of recovery from the earthquake disaster that triggered the nuclear crisis.
“They have come from Hyogo Prefecture, which has recovered from the Great Hanshin Earthquake, to the Tohoku region as symbols of restoration,” he says.
Takeaki Kusunoki, a 58-year-old part-time farmer in Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture, has been charmed by the birds’ graceful appearance since seeing one of the storks in an area near his home in May 2006. In 2009 he formed the Uwa Konotori Hozon-kai (Uwa Oriental stork preservation society), and set up eight nesting platforms with the help of donations. This year he created a stream allowing the fish that the birds feed on to enter rice paddies, creating an environment in which Oriental storks could thrive.
In 2006 residents of the Fukui Prefecture city of Echizen created an association to protect waterfronts and living creatures. To bring storks back into the area, they began farming without agricultural chemicals or with reduced use of agricultural chemicals, and last year several of the birds flew into the area.
Setsuo Satake, representative of the citizens group Konotori Shicchi Netto (Oriental stork wetland network), comments, “The return of the birds to wildlife is not just about the protection of wild birds; it’s an attempt to revive a relationship of coexistence between humans and animals and reclaim a spiritually rich home. I want these efforts to spread across Japan in line with the arrival of the storks.”