Photo/Illutration"Oshidori" mandarin ducks winter around the Hinogawa River in Hino, Tottori Prefecture, in January. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Hinogawa River in Hino, Tottori Prefecture, is one of Japan's busiest wintering sites for "oshidori" mandarin ducks.

During my recent visit, I saw the river teeming with these birds--as colorful as fabric swatches, with their vivid scarlet bills, purple breasts and ornamental plumes shaped and colored just like gingko leaves.

The river's sandbar reminded me of a rush-hour commuter train, tightly packed with hundreds of jostling birds.

"The busiest hours are from around dawn to 8 a.m., then from the late afternoon until sunset," said Junko Morita, my guide. "The birds commute between the river and woodland daily."

"Oshidori fufu" is a Japanese idiom for a happily married couple. "En-o no chigiri," which translates literally as "mandarin ducks' vow," means a declaration of eternal love for each other.

Only male mandarin ducks are of colorful plumage, while females are plain brown. Every pair, pecking each other, looked lovey-dovey indeed.

But Morita told me the hard truth: "After mating, their mutual affection lasts only until the female starts incubating. After that, the male is hardly a responsible partner."

Invariably, it is only the female that sits on the eggs in a nest set up in a tree hollow, encourages her hatched chicks to jump off the nest, and protects the young birds from predatory hawks and crows while guiding them to the riverbank.

To borrow this year’s fad expression, hers is the ultimate example of "wan-ope ikuji," or "one-person operation in parenting."

According to a bird guide I consulted, it is perfectly normal for mandarin ducks to pair up with different partners every year.

I was a bit taken aback, but not Morita.

"Sure, there are cheats and flirts, but there also must be those who remain faithful forever," she noted. "They are no different from humans."

Dec. 22 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

For mandarin ducks, their wintering season has yet to peak. Some migrate to Japan from faraway Russia and China, some roam around Japan, and there also are a small number of those that settle in Hino.

What if these birds could talk? I smiled to myself as I imagined the riverside alive with their quacking chatter in Russian, Chinese and the Tohoku dialect mixed with the local Sanin lingo.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 22

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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.