Fish owls are called Shima-Fukuro in Japanese, to which Japanese-Chinese letters of Shima (island) and Fukuro (owl) are attributed. The island here refers Hokkaido. The Japanese name apparently means owls living in the island. They live also in Kunashiri, Etrofu or Sakhalin islands. In the border areas between Russia and China, their subspecies live.
In the areas where fish owls live, more forests consisting of a mixture of hard woods and conifers remain. And rivers where a lot of fish live run in such forests.
Fish owls are not a kind of birds living in deep mountains and dark valleys, but living together with human beings in proximity. It is shown by the fact that Ainu respectfully called them kotan kur kamuy (guardian deities of villages). We must know about and have respect for their lives to avoid disturbing them.
Fish owl. As the name says, they are owls mainly eating fish.
In rivers on Hokkaido, we can see a lot of small and middle-sized fish belonging to the family Salmonidae such as Japanese char or cherry trout. In the fall and winter, pink salmons and chum salmons come back from the sea to the rivers.
But in the winter, many of the rivers are frozen making it difficult to catch fish there. In such cases, fish owls often come out to the sea shores and catch sea fish. Otherwise they sometimes hunt mice or birds around forests or houses. In the early spring they eat Ezo brown flogs, which show up in masses to spawn.
The population of fish in the rivers is decreasing as the environment of the rivers has changed due to straightening of their flows, logging of shady trees on river bank or installation of check dams, which hampers fish from swimming upstream.
Deprived of the staple food, fish owls cannot survive. The decreased population of fish cannot easily increase. So ponds are dug near the forests where fish owls live, and cherry trout are released there, which serves as their feeding ponds. If food is secured, they won’t die out or immigrate elsewhere. Although this is not their original, natural habits, it is necessary to help them with meals as an emergency measure.
(Nishikwa et. al., 1995; the upper picture is produced by Prof. Shoichiro Arizono and the lower by Prof. Yukio Himiyama) Source: Shizen-no koe-wo kiku – Sizukana daichi-karano denogo: Listening to messages of the nature – words from the still earth), Hokkaido Shimbun Press These materials are provided by Prof. Yugo Ono of Faculty of Environmental Earth Science, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Hokkaido University.
The picture to the left shows Ainu Moshiri in 1850s, right before the colonialisation of Hokkaido was launched by the Japanese government in the Meiji period. The picture below shows the evolution of land utilization on the modern Hokkaido in 1980s for comparison.
* Ainu Moshiri means a still earth for human beings in the language of Ainu (indigenous people), namely Hokkaido.
These images show that in just over 130 years the hardwoods connecting flat lands and forests have entirely turned into plow land. Water gradually gathers from high mountains to be rivers, and the streams get larger as it runs towards the flat lands. River sides used to be nutritious soils with trees thriving and a lot of organisms living on them.
Fish owls are also one of those living there. Their staple food is fish. They survive eating other organisms as well including insects or small animals. Environments with diverse organisms enable them to stay alive.
Originally such environments are formed by waterside trees growing well along rivers, which are known as riparian forests. Fish owls are not a kind of birds living in deep mountains and dark valleys. Their territories are as large as they are able to eat and inhabit using the riparian forests and the surrounding environments. The entirely lost places with hardwoods are the very places where fish owls used to live. The number of nesting trees, especially large ones, has sharply decreased. With this sharp decrease of riparian forests capable of supplying rich nutrients to rivers, the natural form of rivers has changed, and there are much fewer rivers where fish, the staple food of fish owls, live. Large-scale developments with priority for the human society have resulted in loss of many forest belts with hardwoods.
A history of us, human beings, in the near past has had a huge impact on the entire eco-system. The abnormal proliferation of Ezo Shika deer, which inflict massive damages to the agriculture in recent years, is an example of results from losing the balance of eco-system due to the reduction of forests.
Even children learn in environmental education: “If you cut too many trees, the earth gets terribly hot right?” A lot of people know about it.
For fish owls, nesting boxes as temporal support to their breeding or special feeding ponds where fish are released as their food are installed under supervision of the Ministry of the Environment. These “shelter” and “rations” are nothing but supporetive measures in the meantime until green corridors are restored and consequently fish come back to rivers.
Nowadays more individuals, fisheries cooperatives, agricultural cooperatives, local governments or corporates are involved in afforestation across Hokkaido. The existence of forests used to look irrelevant in the distance, but in fact is closely related to our lives. We hope that the circle of those who become aware of this and take action will expand horizontally and be inherited by next generations.
●Please don’t chase after us when you find us in forests!
As you feel relaxed at your homes, we want to do so. Forests are home to us.
●Please stop littering after today!
Be aware that anything needless to you can be a murder weapon to us and actually kill some of us.
●Do absolutely not dump hazardous goods in deep mountains or to rivers.
They say the soil gets dirty, it runs down rivers, pours into the sea and collapses the ecosystem widely. Even if you come all the way to dump, it will eventually return to you and is difficult to repair.
●Please drive at a low speed where flags are hung along rivers.
When you find us, please watch over us from the distance quietly.
We ask you not to come close to trees with nesting boxes. Especially between January and June during which parents of fish owls struggle to raise their children, they get very nervous from just seeing you nearby. Please do consider this so that they can concentrate on raising children.
Owls parents ask you a favor.
Please don’t stay long near our nests or feeding ponds or within our territories to take pictures of us.
We are very sensitive organisms though we look laid-back. We feel being targeted and get scared even in the distance when the long telephoto lens is turned towards us. It is such that the most sensitive of us leave their eggs or children behind.
Please do let us live peacefully.
We ask a favor to you who do recreational fishing. Do release to the river fish you catch. Fish are our vital food.
Please use fishing hooks without barbs so that fish can regain strength after released. Please kindly use the tools requiring high-level skills of game fishing and enjoy yourself at fishing in the middle of the nature.
River populated by a lot of fish are attractive to you anglers and to us alike. Please do catch-and-release to leave rivers always resided by fish.
It should be mentioned earlier, but the amount of fish we eat is very small. We never mean to compete you.
We continue to see acts from momentary curiosity or interest in taking pictures for instance such as approaching too close to owl individuals or penetrating their habitats during their crucial breeding season.
As one of consequences of this, fish owls can be forced to leave their safe haven they found with a supreme effort.
This can be paid with deaths of them in traffic accidents in search of new breeding places.
Fish owls stand at the top of the eco-system, which means protecting them leads to protecting ourselves and the environments we live. Even small actions become a huge power when we all do together. We sincerely ask you for cooperation.