KANSAI Close-up

[Columns]Will white dancers fly back to the Kamo River in winter?―Tourists and citizens are eagerly waiting to see the birds dancing again.

 Black-headed gulls are migratory birds that have added color to the autumn and winter sceneries along the Kamo River every year (photo). Although many tourists look forward to the birds’ boisterous dancing, the number of them flying to the river has remarkably declined. People have expected a survey on the migration numbers of the birds to be held early next year for the first time in a year to see whether there are any signs that the number of “white dancers” will be returning to their original level.
 Black-headed gulls have a body length of approximately 40 cm. Adult birds have a white head, red bill, and black spots at the back of the eyes in winter. Their breeding grounds are widely distributed throughout the northern Eurasian Continent. Also in Japan, they pass the winter around the country from October or November.
 These migratory birds began attracting attention in Kyoto in 1974 when they were identified along the Kamo and Katsura Rivers for the first time, adding color to the bleak winter scenery. With pure white wings, which give a fresh and neat impression, the birds captured the hearts of people for their friendliness when flocking to pieces of bread sprinkled by birdwatchers. In addition, a theory has it that miyakodori (literally “capital birds”), which appear in the “Tales of Ise,” a poem-like story from the Heian period, are black-headed gulls. This theory overlapped with the image of the ancient capital.
 In 1993, the Black-headed Gulls Protection Fund (( 075-491-5918) was established to call for fundraising and activities were initiated such as surveys for protecting the birds, commemorative events, and creating a welcoming environment by cleaning the riversides. As a result, the following ecology of black-headed gulls that fly to Kyoto has become clearer thanks to cooperation from birdman Hisashi Sugawa:  They fly to Lake Biwa from their breeding ground in Kamchatka, over Mt. Hiei for food; ‚ They are omnivorous, eating things such as small fish, aquatic insects, and breadcrumbs; ƒ During the fishing season for sand eels in spring, they also travel to Osaka Bay; and „ They began coming to Japan in search of feeding grounds because their breeding activities in Kamchatka rapidly expanded in the 1700s.
 However, while observing the later shift in the annual survey of the number of black-headed gulls on a specific day on the Kamo River, we found that the number of black-headed gulls, which was 6,528 in 1987, had gradually decreased to 3,483 in 2000, then to 1,002 in 2010, and finally to just 281 in January 2013. This is said to be caused by the changes in the environment of their breeding grounds where brown bears have come to prey on the large numbers of black-headed gulls’ eggs and baby birds.
 Now nothing can put the brakes on a decrease in the number of birds that fly in. However, Representative Shuji Kawamura of the Black-headed Gulls Protection Fund cannot give up, saying, “Every morning, black-headed gulls fly here over Mt. Hiei, and their flying formation called toribashira (literally “bird pillar”) when they return to Lake Biwa in the evening is nothing less than magnificent.” Burdened also with expectations from vacationers, Mr. Kawamura and his team of around ten members will conduct the survey by walking along the bank of the Kamo River on January 13 next year, chasing their dream of increasing the number of black-headed gulls that fly in to their peak number. (Hideaki Kagami)