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Where to go to survive the day? the corbies say

by Hiroaki Sato

“Our ‘jungle’ crows are disappearing,” my Buddhist scholar friend Gene Reeves wrote from Tokyo.

“For years, if I looked out my living room window I could see at least a dozen or two of crows. And, once upon a time, when they were quite plentiful, one would walk into our dining room, take a taste of one or two house plants, and walk out.”

I at once became apprehensive. Did Tokyo start “dealing with” crows? Several years ago a Japanese friend in the same city had written to grumble: “The crows are menacing us. There are too many of them. Something must be done about them.” He lived near Meiji Shrine at the time.

I checked the Internet. Sure enough, some municipalities had websites “dealing with” crows. So I wrote back to Mr. Reeves: It would be terrible if Tokyo had indeed begun to “manage” crows, American-style. But Tokyo already had, he responded.

“I have a vivid memory of taking a ride through Zenpukuji Koen, a long park in Suginami-ku that runs along the river by the same name. For the first time, on the other side of the river from where I was, and not far from a major crow breeding area, I saw a large tentlike affair made of netting. It was made such that crows could get into it, but not out.

“On the inside were half a dozen screaming crows desperately trying to find a way out, and on the outside were another eight or 10 trying, equally desperately, to help them. I felt it was a gruesome scene, and probably never will be able to forget it.”

I checked the matter further, and this time learned that it was Shintaro Ishihara who, as governor of Tokyo, announced, back in the summer of 2001, that he set up “a project team on anti-crow measures.” The team published a report with alacrity — just a month later.

There it was: the proposed “crow-capturing trap.” The diagrams showed a pretty large trap, at 3 by 3 by 4 meters. Initially 100 such traps were set up in parks throughout Tokyo, a later report said. Evidently Mr. Reeves saw a “gruesome scene” in and around one of these.

I also found that earlier, in March, the Environment Ministry’s Nature Conservation Bureau had published a 135-page “Manual on Anti-Crow Measures for Municipal Officers.” The Wild Bird Society of Japan had written the report.

So what? you might ask. Why should a New York city dweller care about what’s happening to crows in Tokyo — or in Japan?

Well, for one thing, precisely because I am a big city dweller, I seem to notice, almost every day, how willful we human beings are to animals, plants and birds.

Just now, for example, reading the two anti-crow reports, I see it’s over the past three decades that jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) increased and have come to outnumber carrion crows (Corvus corone) in Japan’s urban areas. The cause? The food waste surfeited humanity creates.

The illustrated book on Japanese birds I have says that jungle crows, called hashibuto-garasu, “thick-billed crows,” are far fewer than carrion crows, called hashiboso-garasu, “thin-billed crows.” The book was last revised in 1980, so that’s what prevailed back then.

Also, the actual damage and harm crows are said to bring to humanity strikes me as too insignificant to fuss about.

Most complaints about crows are about their cawing. But whether it is the kah-kah of the thick-billed crow or the gah-gah of the thin-billed crow, those calls should be music to the ear of those living amidst urban din. How is it that they, of all people, have become so intolerant of “nature”?

For another, I’ve had a soft spot for crows since I read Konrad Lorenz’s descriptions of jackdaws in “King Solomon’s Ring” forty years ago. The jackdaw is a member of the crow family (Corvus).

“I like crows,” Mr. Reeves wrote, “for their intelligence, but also for the way they like to amuse themselves by playing with their voices, sometimes mimicking a dog or a cat or even a truck.”

I can attest to that. Some mornings, a flock of crows flies in from New Jersey, across the Hudson River, and engages in aerial frolicking before my eyes. I live on a 12th floor facing a roof garden and a large open space.

There is also the splendor of the crow.

Five years ago I saw crows — Japanese crows — for the first time in many years, and I was impressed. I was in Tokyo and had a chance to visit, with a friend, the “nature education park” in Shirokanedai, the last remnant of the Musashino Plain preserved as it once was. The crows there practically gleamed in their blackness, and were dignified as they sharply looked around.

And they were big. They are, in fact, one size larger than the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

Looking at them, I recalled what Bill Higginson had said years ago: The “crows” described in Basho’s famous haiku as perched on dead branches in the autumn evening should be “ravens” in English.

In truth, as I’ve learned since, Japan also has a raven (Corvus corax kamtschaticus), but its range is limited to the northern end of the land.

Speaking of such things, Kenji Miyazawa wrote a number of poems referring to crows, among them “Crows in a Hundred Postures.” It simply describes the way some members of a flock on a snowy rice paddy act. My translation is quoted in full, and compared with Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” in the blogsite “Isola Di Rifiuti.”

I wish those Japanese who complain about crows will read Miyazawa’s original. After all, many of their compatriots regard him as a saint.

No, not all Japanese are out to get the crows. The urban ornithologist Koichi Karasawa, for one, has written two books on the bird, “The Crow Is a Genius!” and “How Clever Is the Crow?”

In another book, Karasawa tells us how he was once called upon to explain why crows came to peck at one outdoor exhibit at a “Flower Expo.” He could not puzzle out the cause, but gently suggested that it may well be man’s fault. The slogan of the Flower Expo was “Harmony between Man and Nature.” Then why do so unnatural a thing as assembling thousands of different flowers in a single spot?

Perhaps the crows were warning about the folly, Karasawa said.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and writer in New York. His most recent book is “Snow in a Silver Bowl: A Quest for the World of Yugen.”