Seventy years ago a young teacher in Japan began to chronicle the slow disappearance of an incredibly beautiful bird. It was a tale that seemed to have only one possible ending.
Four pretty birds, sitting in a tree.
One flew away and then there were three.
Three pretty birds, looking at you
One flew away, and then there were two.
Two pretty birds, sitting in the sun
One flew away, and then there was one.
One pretty bird, sitting all alone
It flew away, and then there were none.
That kind of nursery rhyme, with its mechanical countdown, has long been a staple in teaching children to count. The image of a few cheerful birds individually taking leave of one another adds to its charm and its usefulness.
Just for a moment, let's imagine that each bird does not "fly away" to parts unknown but simply disappears. The nursery rhyme then becomes a little darker. Let's say, too, that the birds are the crested ibises. Suddenly we no longer have a jolly nursery rhyme but a grim real-life tale of a magnificent bird's dreaded fate.
Reading between the lines, this tale tells not only of the birds, but of people who throughout the centuries have been entranced by their beauty. It tells of the tears these bird lovers shed as they tried to save the bird from extinction but watched as its numbers fell inexorably toward zero.
But rest assured, as with all the best fairytales, this one has a happy ending-or at least a mostly happy one. And of course there is a moral to the tale: unless humans heed messages of caution, restraint and protection, there will be many other species to farewell, with the sadness and tears it brings.
Someone who knew all about that was the Japanese author Teruyuki Kobayashi, who wrote the non-fiction book Last Words of the Crested Ibis in the 1990s, recounting the pain that Japan endured in trying-unsuccessfully-to protect the species.
The book, which has recently been published in Chinese, also recounts the crested ibis' more gilded fate in China, talking about the highs and lows, and outlining the precious lessons to be learned.
The crested ibis has white feathers, a red head and a black slender beak with a dash of red at the apex. In flight it puts on a full display of its beauty, its open wings throwing off tinges of orange, pink and red, a perfect complement to the flow of a setting or rising sun.
Its scientific name is Nipponia nippon, in reference to Japan, where Western naturalists first came across the species in the 19th century. In its heyday its habitat stretched from Russia to China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In China they lived in Heilongjiang province bordering Russia and as far south as Taiwan.
The Japanese once fiercely hunted and killed the bird, coveting its beautiful feathers and the profits from handicrafts made of them.
Until the 1920s many believed that Sado Island, about 32 kilometers west of the main island of Honshu, might be the country's last habitat for crested ibises.
Haruo Sato, a high school teacher who taught bookkeeping, typing and calculation, was astonished at the bird's beauty when he first saw one flying over a terrace at dusk in November, 1947, one year after he had started tracking crested ibises.
To manage this, Sato went out at 4:30 am almost every day, rain or shine, bicycled 10 kilometers for about 50 minutes, rode up a mountain for about 600 meters, laid down the bike, and climbed the mountain for another 40 minutes.
He observed the bird with the help of a telescope and a camera. At the time most Japanese knew little about the bird. With years of endeavor, one of the many things Sato learned about the bird was that it liked to forage in quiet rice paddies.
Kobayashi's book begins by recounting what happened one winter's morning in 1950, when Sato was 31.
As the sun rose, a crested ibis appeared, strolling in the field, staring at the water's surface. Suddenly it stuck its beak into the water, its head down and a moment later out of water with a splash.
Now, in its beak the ibis held a loach by the waist, mud still hanging from the beak's red tip. As the loach struggled, the bird jerked its head several times before sucking in its breakfast.
Sato witnessed that as the ibis flapped its wings and water splashed in all directions, more of the birds came, as if being summoned by a yell of, "Food! Come on here. It's safe."
Crested ibises are wary of people and of birds such as crows and eagles. When the earliest intruder's companions hunted for food, it surveyed the terrace and inspected the surroundings, as if on lookout.
Once the young ibises had eaten, two began playing vigorously in a tug-of-war with a straw, shaking their heads heavily. A few feathers at the back of their heads stood high and an adult bird intervened to mediate.
About 20 minutes later, the birds left with their tweets resonating throughout the valley.
After writing down what he had seen, Sato went to a field where the crested ibises had previously stayed. There he expertly collected what for him was treasure-the birds' droppings. In his first year of observations he collected more than 1,000 specimens.
By extracting indigestible material in the excrement day after day, Sato finally worked out the birds' diet: grasshoppers, locusts, loach and crucian carp in spring, summer and autumn, and little river crabs in winter, the latter because when the water fields were covered with snow, the ibises had to find gurgling rivers or streams to forage in instead.
Sato's room was always smelly, he sometimes forgot to eat and stayed out for the night. He was unwilling to spare time for farm work during autumn harvests, and barely had time to take care of his children.
Over the years his family became accustomed to his unusual ways and began to understand and support his passion for the crested ibises, but he was the butt of humor among many of his students.
Throughout his life, he gave up any chance of career promotion so he could devote himself to the birds.
It was thanks to his perseverance that people learned that crested ibises' feathers change color with the seasons, a revelation that dispelled a misconception that there were two kinds of crested ibises, one white and the other charcoal gray.
One hundred crested ibises were estimated to be left on Sado Island in 1934, and their habitats covered almost every corner of the island, but the number plunged during and after World War II. By 1950 there were 35 left, by 1952 there were 24 and by 1956 just 13. However, that year crested ibises were also found on Noto Peninsula, about 100 kilometers southwest of Sado.
The bird's decline can be attributed to the felling of trees and the widespread use of pesticides. In 1966 parasites and organic mercury from pesticides were found in the corpses of two crested ibises, the toxic substance having entered their bodies through loaches in the rice paddies.
One of Sato's most important allies in protecting the birds, Koji Takano, once told him that the crested ibis was just one element of its habitat so they could not focus their efforts solely on preserving it without also considering its connection to nature.
When construction was in full swing in the years of Japan's economic boom, Sato lobbied the government to promote the importance of protecting the bird that had become an emblem of Sado Island, to ban hunting in certain areas and to reduce the use of pesticides.
From then it became a joint effort of the islanders. They guaranteed some water fields not covered with snow in winter and cultivated loaches in pesticide-free environment. They scattered so many loaches into the fields that the crested ibises could still find something to eat after the crows scared them away and took a share of their food.
Donations and letters for Sato flooded in from around the country.
Because Sato and Takano had both taken care of injured crested ibises for a time, from the late 1960s Japanese people began to nurse hopes that artificial rearing and reproduction could help save the bird from extinction. Debate about whether to let the last birds breed in the wild or in captivity with the help of technology raged in those years.
In 1967 a crested ibis conservation center was built in the Shimizudaira area of the island, near Takano's hometown, and he joined in the work there. It was he who years earlier had told Sato, who favored artificial reproduction, that it was unlikely to work. Eventually Sato became an opponent of artificial reproduction, while Takano joined in an effort using the method to save the birds.
In the same year a bird lover named Kintaro Uji befriended a crested ibis on the island, and over months of loving daily feeding and spending days watching over the bird gained its confidence. Eventually it was decided that the bird, named Kin in honor of Uji, should be taken from the wild for breeding, and in 1968 it became the conservation center's sole inhabitant.
Uji, who would die in 1984 aged 82, is said never to have got over his guilt for betraying his friend, and for years visited a shrine praying that it would live a long life and successfully give birth to offspring.
Considering the fact that most wild crested ibises failed to survive for long in the conservation center, later actions in Japan-including capturing fledglings, collecting bird eggs for artificial hatching, and capturing the remaining five wild crested ibises for artificial reproduction in 1981-may now seem draconian, even if those involved no doubt had the best of intentions.
The decision for maximum human intervention in protecting the last crested ibises was rooted in the fear that they could not protect themselves in the wild. At the same time the forces of economic development and environmental conservation competed with one another, even as there was a heightened public awareness of the cultural values that the bird embodied.
In 1981, when Japan's crested ibises seemed to be in their death throes, seven wild crested ibises were found in Yangxian county in Shaanxi province of China. The Chinese chose to let the healthy crested ibises multiply naturally. Only weaker ones would be brought up by humans, and the first successful artificial incubation took place in 1989.
Since 1985 the two countries have worked together to protect the species, Japan borrowing or introducing crested ibises from China, and China receiving technical support and donations from Japan.
More than 500 descendants of the seven crested ibises found in Yangxian county now live in Japan, Xinhua News Agency has reported.
Wang Xin, Chinese translator of Last Words of the Crested Ibis, says that at first he could not understand Sato's devotion and sacrifice for the crested ibis.
Wang says he eventually realized that the bird was a salve for Sato's World War II memories. Seeing his companions die on the battlefield, or being unable to be treated properly for their injuries, Sato learned to cherish life and treasure beauty.
On October 13, 2003, an obituary appeared in the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun. It began:"Japan's last crested ibis born in the wild died last Friday... on Sado Island."
That ibis was Kin, aged 36, which made it a centenarian in human terms, the paper said, adding that Uji's prayers for a long life for his friend had been answered.
On Sept 25, 2008, 10 captive crested ibises were released into the wild of Sado Island.
On seeing them, Sato said:"Today is the happiest day in my 60 years of protecting crested ibises. Before the last five Japanese-born crested ibises were captured I always worried about them on rainy, snowy and windy days. Twenty-seven years have passed, and the worries are back again."
In April 2012 three crested ibis chicks were hatched on Sado Island, the first time chicks had been hatched in the wild in Japan in 36 years, and the Japan Times reported that all three of the baby chicks briefly left their nest on May 27 that year.