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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Bonin Grosbeak - Extinct Japanese Bird

Here's a look at another Japanese bird that went extinct - sometime in the 1880s.

Called the Bonin Grosbeak or Bonin Islands Grosbeak (Carpodacus ferreorostris), this bird is a finch that was found only on the Bonin islands... which is weird considering I'm sure most of us have never heard of the Bonin Islands, let alone believe it to be Japanese because it doesn't sound Japanese.

Like a lot of scientific research from the 1800s, you have to take things with a grain of salt. Lots of truths and lots of confusion leading to lots of inconsistencies... and in some cases, actual extinction of a species or two.

I'll give some historical background first on the bird's discovery before giving a description of the bird itself.

Back in 1827, during what was known as the Beechy Pacific expedition, the Bonin Grosbeak was collected as two specimens on Chichi-jima (Chichi Island), one of the islets that make up the Ogasawara Islands (小笠原群島), which are also known as the Bonin Islands.

Well... sort off. Per Wikipedia:

The Bonin Islands consist of three subgroups, which are listed below, along with their main islands:
  • Muko-jima Group (聟島列島 Muko-jima Rettō) - formerly Parry Group;
    • Muko-jima (聟島, literally: Bridegroom Island);
    • Yome-jima (嫁島, literally: Bride Island) - formerly Kater I.;
    • Nakōdo-jima or Nakadachi-jima (媒島, literally: Go-between Island);
    • Kita-no-jima (北ノ島 or 北島, literally: Northern Island);
    • Mae-jima - formerly The Ears;
  • Chichi-jima Group (父島列島 Chichi-jima Rettō) - formerly Beechey Group;
    • Chichi-jima (父島, literally: Father Island) - formerly Main I./Peel I.;
    • Ani-jima (兄島, literally: Elder Brother Island) - formerly Hog I./Buckland I.;
    • Otōto-jima (弟島, literally: Younger Brother Island) - formerly North I./Stapleton I.;
    • Mago-jima (孫島 literally:Grandchild Island);
    • Higashi-jima (東島 literally East Island)
    • Nishi-jima(西島 literally West Island) - formerly Goat I.;
    • Minami-jima(南島 literally:South Island) - formerly Knorr I.;
  • Haha-jima Group (母島列島 Haha-jima Rettō) - formerly Baily Group or Coffin Islands;
    • Haha-jima (母島, literally: Mother Island) - formerly Hillsborough I.;
    • Mukō-jima (向島 literally: Over There Island) - formerly Plymouth I.;
    • Hira-jima or Taira-jima (平島, literally: Flat Island)
    • Ane-jima (姉島, literally: Elder Sister Island) - formerly Perry I.;
    • Imōto-jima (妹島, literally: Younger Sister Island) - formerly Kelly I.;
    • Mei-jima (姪島, literally: Niece Island)
So... the Bonin Islands are three large islands, with lots of smaller islands situated around each, like tiny moons.

Here's more confusing information that should clear things up: The Bonin Islands are an archipelago of over 30 subtropical and tropical islands.... which means that even with that list above, not ever single stinking island  is listed, or large enough to have its own name (at least for Wikipedia). Yeesh.

Anyhow... the chain of islands is about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) due south of Tokyo.

Want more confusion (and I'm not even at the damn bird yet)? 'Bonin Islands' is the common name in English for Ogasawara Guntō, from the Japanese word bunin (an archaic reading of 無人 mujin), meaning "no people" or "uninhabited".  The only inhabited islands of the group are Chichi-jima (父島), the seat of the municipal government, and Haha-jima (母島) which includes Ogasawara Village.

So... the islands are called the 'uninhabited islands' but two of them are actually inhabited. It seems to me they could have renamed it after it became inhabited.

And... when did people start living there? Sometime JUST before the Bonin Grosbeak became extinct. Probably should have renamed it to No Grosbeak Islands.

Strangely enough, the bird was reported to have existed on both Haha-jima and Chichi-jima, but there are no confirmed sightings or skeletal remains on Haha-jima. They were only officially observed on Chichi-jima.

In 1828, German-born Heinrich von Kittlitz landed on Chichi-jima and took several more specimens of the Bonin Grosbeak - and at this time, also discovered the Bonin Thrush... when five specimens were taken. (More on this bird next.)

Actual specimen collected by Friedrich von Kittlitz in 1828. Image from the Oriental Bird Club.

In 1830... three years after the Beechy Pacific expedition had first discovered the Bonin Grosbeak bird, they returned to rescue two shipwrecked sailors... these two sailors thought that Chichi-jima might be a good place to set up a stopover station for whaling fleets... and so... human settlement began that year.

And what happened to the Bonin Grosbeak? Well... when the Rodgers-Ringgold North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition landed on Chichi-jima in 1854 with the naturalist William Stimpson aboard, he could not find the Bonin Grosbeak.

Stimpson did note that on Chichi-jima, there were many rats, wild goats, sheep, dogs and cats, in addition to the pigs that were already present in 1828 (which Kittlitz had noted were present)... the rest of those critters were left (probably) by Beechey in 1930 to provide provisions for future castaways like the two they had just rescued.

Conclusions: the Bonin Grosbeak became extinct sometime after 1830 and 1854, owing to the introduction of foreign animals that more than likely destroyed the bird's habitat.

The bird is described as a sedentary bird... not shy... usually found singly or in pairs.

It ate fruits and plant buds that it picked fallen from the ground or other low shrubbery.

Although not a land-lubber, the Bonin Grosbeak was not seen to often perch in a tree... in fact, it seemed reluctant to fly.

Vocally, it had a soft, pure and high note—sometimes short, sometimes drawn out; sometimes given singly, sometimes in a short series. (I love that someone thought to collect that bit of information before they bagged and killed the specimens.)

While many specimens were taken during various scientific expeditions, there are a total of 10 specimens extant in 2013.

There appears to differences between the sexes... but even then, there are big differences between just the males (males have the colorful red feathered face)... though such differences could possibly be explained by seasonal variations or (god help us all) if there were several subspecies. Someone do some damn DNA testing.

Anyhow... a Japanese island bird is extinct - killed by destruction of its habitat as instituted by man, though NOT the Japanese. A Japanese bird perhaps never seen by a Japanese person.

Andrew Joseph


  1. There's so many animals came to extinction because of irresponsible human being.

    1. Agreed. The fact that 'scientists' 100+ years ago were trapping the birds and killing them for specimens for collectors and museums shows they did not study the birds/animals first... in many cases... these same scientists may have killed the last example of a species.
      As well... introducing cats and rats and other mammals into an ecosystem destroyed natural food sources, nesting areas and just plain caused death for many a species of bird and other animals.
      I always wonder how many animals existed - that we have no knowledge about. Or still exist...
      I do love that scientists TODAY seem to do a very good job about studying without disturbing the natural environment of a creature... but, you are right... man still destroys trees and forests and wetlands for housing and profit... destroying many species in the process.
      In Canada and the US and many other countries... ecological surveys must be done first before a new project is even considered.
      Poorer countries lack the money to do things like that.
      Thanks for writing!