The difficulty of raising a "raicho" (rock ptarmigan) bird was already well understood during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

The feudal Kaga Domain (now Ishikawa Prefecture and Toyama Prefecture) published a report that noted, "The raicho dies immediately after leaving the mountain," according to "Tateyama no Raicho" (Raicho of Mount Tateyama), a booklet by the Toyama prefectural board of education.

The population of wild raicho is estimated to have shrunk to less than 2,000 due to changes in their habitat. The challenging task of breeding the bird artificially is being attempted by the Environment Ministry and five institutions.

Of 22 chicks hatched in the project, 12 have survived. The first-born among them, which will soon be 3 months old, is being cared for at the Toyama Municipal Family Park Zoo, which I visited recently.

I was able to observe the chick only on a monitor screen, but the little fellow was so cute--hopping around, and cocking and shaking its head busily.

"We are paying special attention to hygiene," said Yuji Ishihara, the zoo's 57-year-old director. "All caretakers wear special clothes and sterilized gloves, and change into clean boots to enter the cage."

A definitive method of artificial breeding is still unknown, but the distinction of the raicho in the wild is celebrated.

The plumage changes color by season. In summer, it turns brown so the bird blends into the rocky background; in winter, it is all white like the surrounding snow.

I can see why the raicho was called "reicho" (spirit bird) and worshiped in ancient times, and has been designated the "prefecture bird" by all three prefectures that form its traditional habitat--Toyama, Nagano and Gifu.

Also called a "living fossil" and a "relic of the Ice Age," the raicho is believed to have migrated from the Chinese continent to the Japanese archipelago during that ancient period, remaining here after the ice melted.

The species has survived a mind-boggling length of time, blending into rocks and snow in the primeval mountains it inhabits. But if the population has now dwindled to a level that threatens extinction, I can only try to imagine the extent of the cataclysmic change our planet must be undergoing.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 13

* * *

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.