Observation Logs, Japan: Corvids in General.

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Japan Crow Observation Logs

Tokyo's Winged Bullies, By Doug Struck, Washington Post Foreign Service Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Not an Observation, but the continuing story of Tokyo's crow problems

TOKYO -- Exterminator Yasuke Hazu, 20, glided up the branches of a towering ginkgo tree on the playground of a kindergarten in Tokyo. In moments, a tangle of wire hangers that had been a nest for crows tumbled down -- a small blow in the city's losing war against crows. Other great cities battle rats or pigeons. But the scourge of Tokyo is crows. Large, black, winged bullies with a chilling caw and a look-you-in-the-face, beady-eyed arrogance.

Normally, the crows are but a menacing presence, rarely violent. But in the spring nesting season, they aggressively defend the territory around nests built in trees and utility poles, swooping down on unsuspecting intruders walking below. "People are scared by these crows," said Takashi Nose, 32, an exterminator hired by the city government. "They are big, black, with a big beak, and kind of scary."

Through May, the Tokyo government had commissioned the exterminators to dismantle nearly 250 nests, disposing of 642 chicks and 93 eggs in the process. In addition, the city government and its wards have distributed nearly 50,000 blue nets that people are supposed to place over garbage bags to keep the birds out. And the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, has publicly suggested a more personal approach to the problem. "I intend to make crow-meat pies Tokyo's special dish," he proclaimed. Despite the governor's culinary suggestion, the authorities are fairly reserved in their approach. The exterminators are ordered out only in cases of attacks on people. That still leaves them with plenty of work; there have been hundreds of reports of birds swooping down on people during the spring nesting season. Crows usually attack from behind, kicking or pecking at the victim's head.

"We've had an increase in violent attacks. We've had 10 to 20 that have drawn blood," said Kunio Momosawa. He is in charge of the wildlife control program in sprawling Tokyo, a job that takes him from dealing with monkeys and deer to crows and wild goats. His spring offensive is a reaction to the growing crow power here. As Japan has lost its famous frugality, its garbage is bloated with the rich discards of an opulent society. The food scraps have fed an explosion of crows. This being a precise place, the government has numbers: It estimates there were 7,000 crows living in Tokyo in 1985, and 21,000 as of the latest count. A bird watchers' group says the number is probably 30,000.

"In the wild, the role of crows as scavengers is fine," said Momosawa. "In the city area, they have a huge, ample garbage supply and no natural enemies like an eagle or hawk. So they just increase." This crowd of new neighbors is not subtle. Crows travel in mobs, swooping into an area with a triumphant racket. They are brazen, and increasingly unafraid of contact with man or beast. They stare down dogs, and are alleged to snatch small kittens. Try to shoo them away, and they may take one or two sullen hops, then stop defiantly. The species here is the tree-loving jungle crow, and they have taken over some of Tokyo's central parks. Mothers gather up their children when the flocks rumble back to their roosts overhead. Their caw feeds superstitions: "Three crow cries, and someone has died," goes one. "See a crow, take three steps back," goes another.

Nests in utility poles have led to five blackouts in the past two years, according to Mikoto Odagiri, an official of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Linemen arrive to find a roasted crow beneath the shorted lines. The company has tried a variety of umbrella-like devices and obstructing wires to discourage crows. "They all turned out not to work," Odagiri said. "The crows are too smart. Maybe smarter than the power company."

"Crows have huge forebrains in comparison with other birds," said Shigeru Watanabe, a psychologist who oversaw experiments at Keio University in Tokyo to see if crows recognized people. "They are smarter than pigeons but dumber than us." That sometimes seems debatable. The crow explosion has occurred because impeccable Tokyo puts its garbage out in peckable plastic bags each night, and cannot seem to figure out that garbage dumpsters or cans would keep out the crows. When recycling started here in 1992, requiring separation of different kinds of trash, the government insisted people use relatively transparent bags. So on garbage collection day, rows of clear vinyl bags offer crows a smorgasbord. The crows prefer bags that seem to contain wet or pinkish contents, promising a treat for the flesh-loving scavengers. Before the garbage collectors arrive, the birds have pecked through and strewn the garbage across the street. "It's really more a problem of what humans do than what crows do," said Momosawa.

So, too, the noise problem is partly a self-inflicted injury by humans. Complaints about crows rocketed to 1,298 last year from 511 the year before, partly because the increase in the crow population means so many more crows are living close to people. And crows greet the sunrise with a raucous hello, a din that drives people out of bed. Since Japan stubbornly refuses to adopt daylight savings time, the deafening noise starts at 4:30 a.m., rather than a slightly more civilized hour. Is that the sound of crows laughing through their beaks?

Even the attacks during nesting season can be partly blamed on the linguistic shortcomings of the victims, said Michio Matsuda, an ornithologist and author of "Why Crows Attack." If more people talked crow, he said, there would be fewer such incidents. "There's a lack of communication here," Matsuda said. "Crows send many signals. When the salaryman going to work or the mother with a baby goes under a tree with a nest, the crows give nasty cries to say, 'Please leave our living circle.' But city people miss the sign. It's a problem for the crows. They are perplexed, and they send more signals that are ignored. The only thing they can do is be more aggressive."

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