Symbol of decline

Species: Gray-faced buzzard

Status: Classed as “vulnerable” in Japan’s “Red List” Perched high in the branches of a Konara oak tree, a sashiba (Gray-faced buzzard; Butastur indicus) peers down at a newly planted rice paddy. Suddenly, it swoops into the field, snatches up a frog and returns to its leafy watchtower. The buzzard, which has migrated to Japan to breed after overwintering in Southeast Asia, will fatten on frogs, snakes and bugs from the paddies till early summer. By July the rice will grow taller and the buzzard will feed almost exclusively on insects and small animals in the strips of secondary woodland that cover the hillsides adjacent to the paddies.

Because they depend on a mosaiclike pattern of forests and fields, Gray-faced buzzards are often used as symbols of the satoyama ecosystem. Their once- extensive habitat, however, is becoming increasingly rare. According to the International Rice Research Institute, the rice-paddy area under cultivation in Japan fell by more than 500,000 hectares between 1985 and 2000, and because they are small and inefficient, the number of narrow valley paddies the buzzards favor has fallen in particular. This has meant a reduction in the number of amphibians and reptiles that Gray-faced buzzards feed on — and, ultimately, in the number of buzzards themselves.