17 April 2004

(23) Japan again: Tokyo's Feathered Terrorists

Japan's capital has a crow problem, and that's putting it mildly. Roving bands of the big black birds are harassing, attacking-- apparently even stalking--the populace.

TOKYO--They are on Tokyo's most-wanted list these days, vilified as child abusers, arsonists, grave robbers and cannibals. They eat everything--including the rotten and still-living.
Don't make eye contact, even from the seeming safety of a window. They remember faces and may stalk you when you eventually emerge.
The villains are jungle crows--huge, jet-black creatures with intimidating beaks, killer claws and a caw that sounds like a sea gull on steroids.
About 21,000 of the birds, which are indigenous to parts of Asia, have taken up residence in Tokyo, triple the number of 15 years ago. Until recently, the crows were mostly just an annoyance, cackling like drunken "salarymen" at predawn parties in Tokyo's few trees and having orgies amid the tantalizing, thinly wrapped bags of garbage piled high on city streets.
But the brazen birds, which measure about 2 feet from beak to tail and sport a wingspan of more than a yard, are now on the attack. The Japan Wild Birds Assn. warns not to leave children unattended on terraces or in tiny backyards, and with good reason.
Three-year-old Kimiko Enamoto was with her mother, Yuko, in a city park when five crows suddenly swooped down. When the girl ran, they attacked her from behind, pecking her on the head. Yuko Enamoto threw one of her sandals at the birds, then rushed her bleeding daughter to the doctor. Kimiko, who escaped with only a tetanus shot, is getting over her terror of birds a lot more slowly than she is her superficial wounds. "I think she can deal with sparrows now," her mother says.
Enamoto theorizes that the birds sense fear--which is why they attacked her daughter and not her friend's little boy, who stood still when the crows rushed them.
"I usually still swing my handbag at them," she says. "I feel like if I see a big bird, I'll show him who's boss."
But the birds showed Hiroshi Takaku, a political analyst, who's really in charge.
When one of his colleagues was being attacked by two crows on the roof of his Tokyo office building, Takaku took off his belt and started swinging it. The birds kept their distance. But a few days later, Takaku and his colleagues arrived at work to find a crow cavalry awaiting them: Hundreds of crows flew over the downtown office building in a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."
"They threatened us by yelling or crying," Takaku says. "We think one crow sent a signal to his colleagues to come back as a group. . . . My colleagues knew they came for revenge."
Hiroshi Kawachi, deputy director of the Tokyo branch of the Japan Wild Birds Assn., blames the mounting problem on the capital's failure to adequately dispose of trash. Some businesses have banded together and hired private trash services to pick up rubbish in their districts at night, because the crows have poor night vision. Some districts encourage residents to use trash cans that close completely. But in many parts of Tokyo, which requires residents to put their trash in semi-see-through plastic bags, most people just throw nets over the garbage, which doesn't seem to deter the birds much. And Tokyo's move to begin collecting the rubbish at 8 a.m. instead of an hour later is worthless, Kawachi says. "The crows have already finished their breakfast when men come to collect garbage at 8 a.m.--they usually eat at 5 to 6 a.m.," leaving rubbish strewn in their wake, he says.
Fortified by the urban smorgasbord, the emboldened crows then cruise the city. Adults, children and even an occasional bicyclist are all high on their pecking order, particularly in May and June, when the unwary targets venture near protective crow parents hovering over their chicks. Although statistics aren't available, city officials say several injuries have required stitches, and one cyclist who was stalked by crows suffered broken bones in falling.
More serious injuries are possible if the current pattern isn't broken, Kawachi warns. "Crows do not have any morals to distinguish humans from animals," he says of the birds, which are so tough that they sleep in jerry-built beds made of metal clothes hangers.
Somewhat like the Japanese society in which they live, the birds feel most comfortable in a group. They stalk their prey en masse and have even been known to attack lambs and calves in the countryside. A favorite food is road-kill cat, although the crows find the meal even tastier if the unfortunate pet is still breathing.
Sometimes the crows even dine on each other. And although they stop short of killing their young, that doesn't mean they won't eat the babies of other bird species.
Tokyo is striking back with a controversial campaign, led by hawkish Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. His crow antipathy has its origins in a golf course incident: He was attacked by vengeful crows after he hurled his club at them, he told Japanese reporters.
Poisoning birds is prohibited in Tokyo, so this spring the city hired five extermination companies to take down nests and kill chicks, although the firms could crow only about their experience with pigeons, rats and cockroaches. One company, Kokusai Eisei, feels so bad about killing the babies (it dispatches them with chloroform) that it sends the ashes to private pet tombs, paying $18 per pound for the repose of the bones.
The bird-busters come armed with helmets, acrylic masks and plastic, elbow-length gloves. Guns are prohibited in Japan, so the defensive weapon of choice is an open umbrella.
Hiroshi Tsurumaki, deputy manager of Kokusai Eisei, says the crows never attacked while the exterminators did their dirty work but that five or six parents usually glared nearby.
Certainly, when measured against Tokyo's crow crowds, the campaign hasn't been overly successful: The exterminators have snatched just 60 nests this summer, each of which contained two or three chicks.
City officials estimated that they've spent as much as $35,000 on the effort.
The crows have always been pests to farmers in the countryside. And two years ago they were blamed for a forest fire in Iwate prefecture in northern Japan. A witness reported seeing a crow drop a flaming potato chip bag--picked up from a dump where outdated chips were being burned--over dry weeds.
A year earlier, there had been another case of suspected crow arson: a blaze sparked when the birds picked up incense from a graveyard and dropped it on a nearby forest. Crows flock around cemeteries, where food, including vegetables and fruit, is often brought as a gift for ancestors and where those paying respects often light incense sticks. "You cannot blame anybody for a crow-caused hazard," says Muneo Hishinuma, the fire chief in the city of Kamaishi. Perhaps the fires were accidental. Perhaps they weren't--everyone knows the birds are smart.
Enamoto, whose daughter was attacked, says that one day in the park, she briefly left some leftovers unattended. The food was in a plastic bag, inside a lunch box, inside another bag tied with a string. When she returned a few minutes later, a crow had pulled everything out and was munching on the fried chicken.
A sister species, the carrion crow, has been known to put walnuts, which it can't open with its claws, in the path of oncoming cars and wait for the four-wheeled nutcrackers to drive by before retrieving the delicacy.The jungle crows, however, simply watch the carrion crows do the work and then confiscate the reward.
They're not always so smart when it comes to their own reflection, though: When they see themselves in building glass, they tend to mercilessly peck at the image, sometimes killing themselves in the process.
Such deaths are among the few ways adult crows can die a nonnatural death these days. There is just one creature known to eat crow in Japan: the hawk. And it must be a huge hawk, or else the crows go after it.

Valerie Reitman, august 2000

(To get an impression what kind of crow is being discussed here, click on the next link for some great pics of Crows in Japan: