“The number I see at this spot depends on the season,” he explains.
Some days dozens of the birds appear in one area, something unimaginable in 2003, when a toki called Kin or “gold” died in a cage on Sado at the record-breaking age of 36.
Her death meant not a single wild-born toki was left in Japan, despite the bird being so synonymous with the country that it is also known as the Japanese crested ibis.
“I knew the day was coming. She was very old and frail,” Tsuchiya said. “But it was still a real pity.”
Efforts to get Kin to mate with Sado’s last wild-born male toki Midori – meaning “green” – had long since failed, and she lived out her last years as a curiosity and a cautionary environmental tale.
Her death made national headlines and appeared to mark the end of a long and seemingly futile battle to protect the toki in Japan, where its feathers even inspire the word for peach pink: “toki-iro”.
But now so many roam the skies and rice paddies of Sado that local officials have gone from discouraging eager birdwatchers to training guides to help visitors spot the local icon, and the government is even studying reintroducing the bird elsewhere.
Wild toki once lived across Japan, as well as in Russia, Taiwan and South Korea.
They were considered a pest that damaged rice plants, but during Japan’s Edo era, from 1603 to 1867, hunting restrictions meant only high-ranking officials could actively pursue birds like toki.
That changed in the Meiji era and as guns became more available. Toki meat was believed to have health benefits, and its feathers were favoured for everything from dusters to decorative flourishes on hats.
“Over just 40 years, the toki basically disappeared,” said Tsuchiya on an observation deck where visitors now try to spot the bird.
By the early 1930s, only a few dozen toki remained in Japan, mostly on Sado and the nearby Noto peninsula, and the species won protected status.
A fresh threat then emerged during Japan’s post-war drive for growth: Rising use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Toki feed primarily in rice paddies that mimic marshy wetland habitats and they are undiscriminating diners, eating everything from insects to small crabs and frogs.
The chemicals affected the birds and their food, and by 1981 just five wild toki remained in Japan, all on Sado, where officials took them into protective captivity.
But by bizarre coincidence, the same year a population of seven wild toki was discovered in a remote area of China’s Shaanxi province, reviving hopes for the bird’s survival.
Sado’s captive birds failed to mate, but China’s programme had more success, and when then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin made a historic first state visit in 1998 he offered Japan the gift of a pair of toki.
You You and Yang Yang arrived the following year on first-class seats, producing their first chick months later in an event that led national television broadcasts.
Other birds arrived from China, and with time Sado had a large enough population to consider reintroducing the toki to the wild.
Source: Channel News Asia