Nature in Short / Rice farming changes but birds still feast

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News Happy autumn moons!

The seventh moon of this Fire-Rooster year will finally reach third quarter tomorrow. This year the traditional Asian lunar calendar has fallen way behind the western Gregorian reckoning we all follow. This is because an intercalary or leap month (uruutsuki) was added between the fifth and sixth months. These extra months keep the traditional lunar system from drifting out of sync with the actual seasons. The mathematics work out to an average of 7 extra months every 19-year period.

In her waning crescent phase, beautiful Luna does not rise until late in the evening. Glamour-struck mystics can look for the pale white goddess climbing through the eastern sky on their way home from a late night out; or sliding gracefully down the western horizon in the morning hours.

Out in the satoyama countryside the rice harvest is going full swing. My farmer friends say they never breathe easy until their rice is dried and bagged. Despite the inclement weather throughout August the harvest appears to be bountiful. In the past, sheaves of rice hung out to dry in the sun and breeze were a staple image of the early autumn countryside.

These days, however, almost all farmers own small powered drying sheds. Still, some prefer sun-dried rice, which they say tastes much better.

Another staple satoyama motif, whole families of farmers bent over at the waist, busily cutting rice stalks with hand-held sickles, has also pretty much disappeared from the landscape. Nowadays every farmer owns a small combine that cuts and threshes the rice, then pumps the grains up into waiting truck bins. My friends tell me that when they were young they could identify the most skillful rice harvesters by the clear, sharp sound their sickles made when cutting through the stalks. The new combines, they all agree, have made their work much easier. On the other hand, the investment in automatic equipment has left them with burdensome loans that are now hard to pay off due to falling rice prices.

Newly harvested rice paddies provide a windfall feeding opportunity for all sorts of countryside predators. Large numbers of grasshoppers, crickets and other insects, as well as frogs and lizards and all sorts of small animals, are turned out into the open when the rice stalks are cut and removed.

Itachi Japanese weasels love to eat fat frogs and grasshoppers, and are well aware of this potential bonanza. So are birds such as shrikes, crows, raptors and egrets. Intermediate egrets (chusagi) have a special love for post-harvest paddies; and the sashiba grey-faced buzzards always stop by for a quick snack during their slow southward migration. Carrion crows (hashibosogarasu) are versatile, opportunistic countryside critters that make quick use of any available feeding opportunity.

Bull-headed shrikes (mozu) are rarely seen during the summer months. At least some of these small but tenacious predators migrate up into the mountains during the hottest period. They always, however, make sure to get back home in time for the rice harvest bonanza. During the autumn both male and female shrikes stake out individual feeding territories, which they defend bravely all winter long. They angrily scold all intruders, including the human kind, with loud, shrill cries.

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Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropoloy professor at Tokyo University Information Sciences.


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