Sika: The Whistling Deer
In the autumn and early winter, on calm nights or early in the morning and evening, from deep in the forest or up on the mountain slopes, you'll hear an occasional, far carrying sound: a long drawn out, slightly mournful whistle that first rises then descends at the end. It is the sound of a male deer calling.
It is a sound that echoes in the mountains and is answered by other males nearby. This call must rank as one of the most stirring, hauntingly beautiful sounds one can hear while out hiking in Japan. This striking noise is the sound of allure, of aggression and of frustration; it is the sound of 'come hither' (if you are a female deer), or of 'flee, you wimp' (if you are another male and not up for the competition). It is the sound of the rut.
Sika Deer (Shika in Japanese), the only native deer of the Japanese archipelago, are mostly active from dusk to dawn, though especially in winter they are driven to be active in daytime too, by the need to feed.
During summer the males grow their new antlers, which at first are covered with 'velvet', a vital tissue, soft, sensitive and well supplied with blood that actually forms and protects the bone beneath. By August, antler growth is complete and the stags' seasonally rising testosterone levels serve both to cut off the blood supply to the velvet, and to change the behaviour of the beast.
As their velvet dries and perhaps becomes annoying to them, the stags rub their antlers against tree trunks and saplings, first shredding and finally removing the covering to reveal the new, branching antlers beneath. A stag in his prime may have as many as eight points. Certain mature males then begin to establish territories, the boundaries of which they mark by thrashing the ground into shallow pits or wallows into which they urinate and roll.
Scent and sex are closely related, and not only in humans! The Sika stags leave musky markings around their territory and their coat absorbs a strong, raunchy and, seemingly to hinds at least, an attractive aroma. The stags also thrash low vegetation with their antlers, and with the combination of inter-male aggression and the mating urge upon them during this lustful season, it is dangerous to get too close to an antler-armed deer. Be careful those antler tines are sharp.
The long, rising and falling whistled notes of the big stags combined with the growth of a thickened neck ruff of fur and the heavy antlers that they carry, signify that the autumn 'rut' is under way. Sika stags fight for dominance over other males, with their loud calls, which include that haunting whistle and a range of other bellowing sounds. The stags call to each other, face off in bluff and counter bluff, and like rams they push head to head in battles of strength.
Ultimately, the stronger stag drives the weaker competing males out of his territory, while at the same time he rounds up any females that enter the territory into his harem.
With other males to repel and up to a dozen females to service in his harem, a male Sika Deer's life during the September, October and November 'rut' (mating season) is an exhausting one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, once the fatiguing rut is over, the males wander alone (recuperating?), or occasionally in small groups.
Eventually, by late March, they cast off the burden of their old antlers. Meanwhile, the females form larger winter groups, each one now pregnant, but accompanied still by its fawn from the previous year. Once they have weathered the winter, the females give birth once more, to a single fawn (very rarely twins) during May and June, after a gestation period of just over 210 days. Winters are tough on deer; deep snowfalls make moving about their forest home difficult and their food becomes blanketed beneath snow and ice, but with milder winters now the norm in Japan, they are responding by spreading and increasing; if luck is on their side then they may live for up to 10~18 years.
Spread of the Sika Deer in Japan
Except where exceedingly tame or habituated, such as in Nara at the deer park, or at Miya-jima, at the Itsuku-shima Shrine, these deer are usually shy creatures, raising their tails, stamping their feet, fluffing out their white rump fur, then, moving off at a brisk trot into the forest as soon as they pick up human scent. On such occasions, the flash of white rump against dark coat and a short, sharply whistled and high-pitched alarm bark may be all that signals the presence of Shika, unless a close look is taken at the ground, whereupon the twin curved slots left by each cloven foot are impressed deeply.
Sika Deer occur on the eastern fringes of the Eurasian continent and live on all of Japan's main islands, and on some of the smaller ones too. Following a simple ecogeographic rule (known as Bergmann's Rule), that birds and animals that live in colder northern regions are larger than members of the same species living further south in milder regions, the Japanese Shika are classified into several forms of different sizes, occupying different regions of the country. The largest of them all live in Hokkaido and weigh up to 100 kg, while those in Honshu are slightly smaller at about 60 kg. Even smaller and lighter races live on Tsushima and on some of the smaller Ryukyu Islands, but these are less common and even shyer than the mainland forms.
The name - Shika Deer
As an aside, there is something very odd about that name: Shika. In Japanese, the name shika (pronounced clearly with a 'sh', the 'i' silent and a pitch accent on the 'ka') means, simply, deer; yet in English the species has been long dubbed the Sika Deer. This name is as tautologically redundant as is the River Avon in England (Afon means river in Welsh!) and seems to have arisen through a misunderstanding and subsequent mistransliteration of the Japanese name.
In Romanising Japanese sounds, it is surprisingly common to see the Japanese hiragana syllable that sounds like "she" Romanised in either of two ways, as "si" or "shi," though a native speaker of English would be hard put to imagine that the first could sound the same as the second. This creature deserves to be re-named in English; it should be called the Japanese Deer.
Japanese Deer Sub-species
Six sub-species of the Japanese Deer are recognised as occurring here, ranging in habitat from the sub-boreal to the sub-tropical regions. These are: the Ezo-shika, which occurs throughout Hokkaido; the Honshu-jika ranging down Honshu and across Shikoku; the Kyushu-jika to be found in Kyushu; the Tsushima-jika, which is endemic to Tsushima Island; the similarly island endemic Yaku-shika of mountainous Yakushima Island south of Kyushu, and the Kerama-jika of the Kerama Islands off Okinawa.
Call it what you will; Shika in Japanese, Sika, or Japanese Deer in English, this is an attractive creature. It's dark winter coat, which blends with the winter forest, gives way to a dappled summer coat, paler, redder and browner, and silver-spotted, making it extremely hard to see in the summer woods. The newborn fawns, share this dappled coat and are delightful with their huge watery eyes and long slender legs.
Throughout the year, Japanese Deer forage on vegetation in forest and wetland. This food is either in the form of grasses, their main natural food species include dwarf bamboo (Sasa) that thrives as ground cover in forested areas of Japan, or they forage on other species around the edges of forests, plantations and woods. In winter, colder conditions and poorer forage, or the fact that the ground cover is hidden beneath snow, forces them to subsist by chewing twigs, nibbling buds, or gnawing at bark, which they pull and strip leaving a distinctive fringe at the top of the newly bare section of trunk.
At least two of the Japanese Deer's sub-species, those in Hokkaido and in Honshu, have reached numbers at which they are in serious conflict with human interests, whether those are in farming or forestry. As a result, culling, and hunting are employed as means of population control. In Hokkaido, in particular there have been enormous increases.
There, the numbers reported to have been shot by hunters were as few as 2,000 in 1962, but had reached nearly 22,000 a year by 1992. From my own unsystematic, but annual, observations across Hokkaido since 1980, I have become well aware of an enormous increase in deer numbers. Since the late 1980s there has clearly been a population explosion. Not only do I encounter deer far more often and in far more places now than I did in the 1980s, but I also see them in larger herds, and much further west than they used to occur.
Deer Population Explosion
The explanations for this increase in numbers are several and varied, and probably a number of factors have combined to make the rapid increase possible. Firstly, their only natural predator in Japan, the wolf, was exterminated just over a century ago.
Secondly, hunting has traditionally been of males only, so with the annual rut finishing before the hunting season begins, the reproduction of the deer has been largely unaffected, and even when males have been shot before breeding in a harem system there are always plenty of males to spare to take their place.
Thirdly, milder winters, especially since the mid 1980s, have allowed more and more young deer to survive what would have previously been the hardest season for them.
Fourthly, the increase in land under dairy pasture, combined with the co-incidental increase in the edge effect, the increased length of the edge of forest and woodland resulting from the inadvertent creation of a greater patchwork of forest, has made more and more food available to them.
This food is either in the form of grass, or in the form of their main natural food species, the dwarf bamboos that thrive in and around the edges of woodland. I have often watched herds of deer foraging and I have tracked deer on innumerable occasions and seen the damage that they can do both to pasture, and to tree buds and bark when they are browsing in forestry areas. It comes as no surprise therefore, that foresters and farmers are complaining about the damage.
Mostly, when out in woods or mountains, I just find deer tracks, occasionally feeding signs where they have nibbled at vegetation, or, more often, piles of neat, nut-like droppings. I hear the stamp and alarm of invisibly fleeing deer, but sometimes I hear the strange creaking whine that females and young share when they are grazing or moving together.
Translocation of Japanese Deer
The Japanese Deer has been translocated from its once limited East Asian range, and it can now be found as an introduced species in a range of countries around the World, from the British Isles and parts of Europe to Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America. To some areas they were introduced as game animals, to others they were seen as 'ornamental' species suitable to grace the parks and estates of the landed gentry.
Visitors to Nara Park or to Itsukushima will be well acquainted with the herds of semi-tame, supposedly sacred deer that wander closely amongst people there, ready to snatch at anything edible (including paper pamphlets!). Seeing them in such a setting is nothing compared with suddenly coming across one browsing in the woods, seeing a pair of stags fighting, or watching a slender, dappled hind with her fawn in the forest.
Text and Photographs: Mark Brazil
A writer, naturalist and wildlife guide, Mark spends half of each year travelling in search of wildlife and the other half writing about it from his base in Hokkaido.
Born and educated in England and Scotland, Mark spent more than ten years involved in the making of natural history documentaries for television, and nine years as a professor of biodiversity of conservation at Rakuno Gakuen University near Sapporo.
He began contributing his column, Wild Watch, to The Japan Times newspaper in April 1982, and has been writing about natural history and travel ever since.
His latest book, a field guide, Birds of East Asia, was published to considerable acclaim in 2009, by A&C Black and Princeton University Press. Mark Brazil's App Mammals of Japan Lite is available via iTunes.
You can learn more about Mark and his work via his website: www.japannatureguides.com