Last week the Japanese islands were attacked by a great cold wave blasting south from Siberia. Even in the Kanto area nighttime temperatures dropped below freezing, and some of the more shaded ponds are now covered by a thin layer of ice. In the sekki, a traditional Asian calendar system that divides the solar year into 24 equal segments based on changes in weather and the natural world, we are still in the Shokan or “Small Cold.” This Friday, however, will mark the start of the Daikan or “Big Cold”!

But there is no cause for concern. The Daikan will last only until the Risshun or “Start of Spring” on Feb. 4. In fact, the winter Doyo starts today. Doyo are 18 day periods preceding the official start of each of the four major seasons. They are considered to be unstable times when the weather and other factors can change rapidly without warning.

Japanese traditional almanacs advise extreme caution when starting new projects during one of the Doyo. For people thinking of getting into bird-watching, however, right now is actually a great time to begin. Birds are easier to spot when the trees are leafless. Also, with food in the forests depleted, birds are far more likely to spend time on open fields and lawns.

All that is needed to start birdwatching is a pair of binoculars. For beginners I recommend 8-power magnification. More powerful models suffer from blurring due to hand shake, and also afford a very narrow field of vision, making it hard to fix them on a small bird. Weight and size are always a trade-off with image quality. Models with large front lenses produce brighter images, but are bulkier and heavier.

All birds are excellent subjects for study, even the ubiquitous feral pigeons and native turtle doves, both of which are common in local parks and gardens. Feral pigeons, called dobato or kawarabato in Japanese, are all derived from a species known as the rock dove, native to Europe and the Mediterranean, which was domesticated at least 5000 years ago and perhaps even much earlier. The first pigeons were brought to Japan between 1500 and 1000 years ago.

Pigeons have a fine homing sense, and when taken away and released will fly straight back to their home loft. Throughout history humans have capitalized on this ability by using them to carry messages. Specially bred and trained pigeons also compete in races, and pure white strains are released ceremoniously at weddings, anniversaries and other auspicious occasions.

Feral pigeons come in a variety of colors and markings, but those close to the original wild rock dove have dark gray and green heads and chests, with lighter gray bodies. The wings are light gray, with two black stripes on the upper surface. The base of a pigeon’s top bill is covered by a patch of waxy skin, called a cere (romaku), that protects the nasal cavities. Most members of the Columbidae or Dove Family (hatoka) have ceres, as do parrots and parakeets, and many birds of prey.

The eastern turtle dove is about the same size as the domestic pigeon, but has a gray or pinkish-gray head, neck and chest, and the brownish wing feathers are tipped with a beautiful shade of rufous. For this reason this species was formerly known in English as the rufous turtle dove.

At this time of year the bill and cere are black or dark gray, but during the spring and summer breeding season the cere, as well as the bare skin surrounding the eye, turn purplish. At any time of year the kijibato’s best field mark is a patch of light gray and black lines clearly visible on the side of the neck.

To Japanese ears these doves’ soft cooing sounds like “De-deh-poh-poh.” Hato or bato are the generic Japanese terms for dove or pigeon. The turtle doves’ formal name is kijibato or “pheasant-dove,” but most local people call them yamabato or “mountain-dove.” The kijibato is native to Japan, and is considered to be the same subspecies as that found across central and eastern Asia. The birds in the Ryukyu Islands, however, are designated a separate subspecies.

Many birds have a crop (ebukuro), a part of the gastrointestinal tract where food is stored before being digested. In the pigeons and doves a semi-liquid substance, called crop milk or pigeon milk, sloughs off from the inner lining of the crop. Crop milk is very rich in both protein and fats, and is used to feed the squibs, as pigeon chicks are called.

Both males and females produce crop milk, which allows the Columbidae to raise their broods without depending heavily on insects and worms.


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