The toki has a slender body, a long black beak, and beautiful feathers. In the air it is even more beautiful, especially when sunlight strikes its outstretched wings, highlighting their orange-pink hues. This elegant color, called toki-iro in Japanese, has been highly regarded over the centuries.
The toki belongs to the family Threskiornithidae in the order Ciconiiformes. It is about 75 cm long from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail, and has a wingspan of about 140 cm. It used to nest in groups in the forest, and would feed at rice fields and marshes, eating insects in the summer and small fish and shellfish in the winter.
Years ago, it was a common bird in eastern Asia. The word nippon (meaning Japan) was added to its name because, when the birds were first discussed at academic meetings in Europe in the early 1800s, it was the Japanese toki that were studied. In 1922, the Ornithological Society of Japan decided on the scientific name Nipponia nippon, and announced this as the official name for worldwide use. Ironically, the name only became well known after the bird was close to extinction. Today, toki live in their natural state in only one place in the world, in Yang County, Shaanxi Province, China.
Around the end of the 19th century, the number of toki plummeted in Japan because of indiscriminate hunting and development. Only a few were left by the early 1930sreports indicated no more than 5 to 20 in the Noto Peninsula region of Ishikawa Prefecture, and 60 to 100 on the island of Sado in Niigata Prefecture. The toki was designated as a special protected species of Japan in 1952, and as an internationally protected bird in 1960. Around this time, villages on Sado established feeding grounds for the birds, and the national government purchased woodland and gave it the status of a national forest for nesting toki. However, by the late 1970s there were fewer than 10 toki remaining in the country.