The Japanese Legend of the Bullfinch: Exchange of Lies (Uso-Kae)

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Bird Notes: Sunday morning's (2 January 2022) weather (58F!) looks good - hope to see you. But just in case of inclement weather, see the Schedule page of our web site for updates and cancellations of the bird walks. Yes owl walks coming - we probably will find a pair of Great Horned Owls by day on the 8 January walk (Saturday) at NYBG in the Bronx.

29 December 2021

In the last year we have been regarded as evil birders, and even teaching evil birding to the few wayward souls who might listen. We admit to collaborating on a Newsletter on the ABC's of how not to be an angelic birdwatcher - see here. This week we offer a means to salvation to those seeking redemption. It is the ceremony of Uso-kae, literally "exchange of lies." SO, in the last year, if you lied about a sighting on eBird, this Japanese ceremony is your cup of tea. Did you attack a fellow birder on the internet by conjuring up alternate facts (lies) about him/her? Suffice to say, Bullfinches are your friends, and you will soon learn why. Deborah and I wish all of you evils a lucky, happy and loving 2022. To be honest though, we see no weevils...

Muttonbird (Sooty Shearwater) for dinner on Stewart Island. This bird is one of the most common seabirds in the world.

Boat-tailed Grackle (female) at Pelham Bay Park Bronx on 24 December 2021. Depending on the day, there were 6-8 of these birds in a small flock - the first record for the Bronx on a Christmas Count in the 98 years the count has been held. Photo by Deborah Allen

In this week's Historical Notes we present (a) Uso-Kae a January festival in Japan where people gather to exchange bullfinches for good luck in the coming year. Why do they do this? You'll have to read the two excerpts! In (b) we send the 1921 Christmas Bird Counts for all areas of New Jersey reporting that year. Some quick notes, and I might sound like a broken record but: Can anyone find a report of a Red-bellied Woodpecker on any of the NJ counts? Also, though the NJ reports below cover a larger territory than the Long Island ones sent last week in this Newsletter, where are all the Red-tailed Hawks? I count 18 combining all the NJ counts of 1921...that is not many more than we see in Central Park on a single Christmas Count these days. Have a look at what was happening in late December 1921 across the river from us...were those good old days better than today?

Lots of White-capped Albatrosses (Stewart Island, NZ) on 29 November 2019

Central Park with snow in past years: above on 7 January 2011 and below 22 December 2009. This December 2021 is the warmest we can remember: Some plants are still flowering.

Good! Bird Walks for Early to mid-January 2022

All Walks @ $10/person - all in Central Park (except where noted)

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here

1. [CANCELLED: Rain] Saturday, 1 January 2022 at 9:30am: Rain is forecast all Day

2. Sunday, 2 January 2022 at 9:30am (Only!) Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive $10

3. Saturday, 8 January 2022 at 9:10am: NYBG in the Bronx at 9:10am. Admission is free to NYBG on Saturdays until 10am...and travel is about 25 minutes (three stops) via MetroNorth from Grand Central Station. More details next week. Getting there: click here!

4. Sunday, 9 January 2022 at 9:30am (Only!) Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive $10

5. Saturday, 15 January 2022 at 9:30am: TBA

6. Sunday, 16 January 2022 at 9:30am (Only!) Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive $10

Any questions send them our way: or call: 718-828-8262 (home)

[Gibson's] Wandering Albatross on 22 November 2019 at Kaikoura Bay (South Island, New Zealand)

Brown Hooded Kingfisher (female) 6 Dec 2021 at Sunland, South Africa Deborah Allen

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through early January 2020. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!

If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.

Carolina Wren by Deborah Allen on 10 November at Shakespeare Garden (Central Park)

Blacksmith Lapwing (juvenile) at the Strandfontein Sewage Treatment Plant

near Cape Town 7 November 2021 - Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

26 December (Sunday) meeting at 9:30am the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe. I keep having to pinch myself: it is indeed winter, and this is one should expect many birds. Unfortunately that was true today: yes we had White-throated Sparrows, Northern Cardinals and of course a Cooper's Hawk...but gone was the Red-breasted Nuthatch of past sign of any warbler...and no owls. What a difference from last year when we had snow and cold weather starting in early December - that brought owls and finches to us. This year we have mild weather (if you are a homeowner and have to pay for oil to heat your home, this year is wonderful so far) - but migrants are still hanging north until the weather changes.

I suppose the highlights of the 26 December walk were (a) flyover Red-shouldered Hawk (thank you Deborah!); (b) the Hooded Mergansers at Turtle Pond (and the lake); (c) being outside in nice weather...for more birds, see Deborah's list linked to below.

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday 26 December 2021: Click Here

White-capped Albatross near Stewart Island, New Zealand on 29 November 2019

Uso-kae Bullfinches Japan



Hello from cold-spell stricken Japan!

The bullfinch is called "uso" in Japanese. This is homonymous with the word for lie in this language.

In January some shinto shrines in Japan hold a ceremony called "uso-kae" which means change of lies or exchange of bullfinches. In this ceremony people exchange wooden bullfinch figures. By exchanging bullfinches it is believed that bad luck generated by lies that you have intentionally or unintentionally told in your life is changed into good luck supported by truth of "Tenjin" god of the shrine. Thus you are assured to be able to live a lucky life in the new year being rid of bad luck of the past.

The wooden bullfinch figure used in the ceremony is not a modern realistic sculpture but a work of traditional folk art. (Visitors may find the figure a good souvenir for bird-loving friends back home.)

Thanks to a net surfing friend I can provide you below with addresses of web sites where you can find some photographic images of bullfinch figures. You will notice that there are a marked geographical variation among these birds. Sub-specific difference? I do not know.

(Yushima-tenjin shrine in Bunkyo ward, Tokyo)

Bob, I wish you good luck irrespective of whether you can attend uso-kae ceremony or not.

Hiraoka Takashi

Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, Japan

The Following Uso-kae Discussion is Excerpted From the Blog of Matthew Coslett: Click

"Bullfinches are said to be lucky birds and are said to be messengers of the kami Tenjin-sama. Tenjin-sama is the exact opposite of the bullfinch in that he was so awesome in real life that he became a deity on death. In life, he was known as one of the greatest scholars in Japan. His poetry was so insightful that, even now, people will often pray to his spirit to grant them some of his wisdom. For this reason, it is common to see students coming to his shrine in the months before their exams. These students often buy bullfinch merchandise in an attempt to gain his blessing.

"Despite his wise nature, Tenjin-sama also had a mean side. His real life counterpart Sugawara no Michizane was treated so badly at the end of his life that his rage didn’t abate even after death. Plenty of stories tell of his vengeance from beyond the grave, bringing lethal rain, lightning and floods on the people that wronged him.

"Appropriately, the bullfinch, being the messenger of such a furious kami, is also said to be capable of bringing the smackdown … albeit to insects instead of the old testament-style vengeance favored by its master.

Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula

"According to Japanese legend, some people were gathering to worship Tenjin-sama when suddenly a swarm of bees attacked. Just as the worshippers were preparing to meet a painful death, a giant flock of bullfinches swept down and ate every single one of the bees. Because of this service, people will buy finch products from temples when they need to convert their misfortune into fortune.

"I’ve talked in previous articles about the Japanese love of homophones and the unusual status of finches in Japanese culture is another example of wordplay. On one hand the word uso can mean ‘bullfinch’ (うそ, sometimes 鷽); on the other hand it can mean ‘lies’ (嘘). Therefore at places like Yushima Tenjin and Kameido Tenjin Shrines, you can buy a bullfinch figurine that represents all the lies that you have told.

"In January, people take these figurines to the temple for the Usokae (鷽替え) festival. At this festival, you are encouraged to exchange them for other people’s finch statues. The symbolism is that you are exchanging your uso from the previous year for truths in the coming year and making everyone luckier.

"If you want to take part in the celebrations, you will need to memorize the word 替えましょう (Kaemashou- Let’s exchange it!) and shout it as often as possible. If you are really lucky, you may even receive the gold/silver bullfinch in an exchange. These statues are as coveted as the holographic pokemon cards and are considered signs that the recipient’s luck will be especially fortuitous.

"So while in most other cultures, the bullfinch is a dull bird, in Japan it can puff out its adorable chest and stand proud as one of this island nation’s more interesting creatures. After all, what other creature can claim to be able to save crowds of people, forgive lies, rid people of bad luck and impart knowledge? Only the bullfinch…"

For more info on Uso-kae click here