His affliction started about six months ago when a pair of jungle crows decided to build a nest in a neighbor’s tree.
“The crows tried to attack me whenever I passed by the house,” said the 77-year-old resident of Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. “They didn’t hurt me, but flew low and brushed the nape of my neck. It was frightening.
“After the crows started to attack us, our home ceased to be a place of comfort.”
When his frustration with the black birds’ menace grew almost unbearable, his neighbor called the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which dispatched a team of exterminators one muggy afternoon in late June.
Within a half hour, the crew managed to shake the birds’ nest — made up of about 100 clothes hangers, a favorite building material for urban crows — from the tree. The attacking crows had flown off, but the four chicks that came toppling down with the nest were taken away for certain death.
“Will they build the nest again?” the old man worried. But exterminator Tadatsugu Suzumura assured him, crows rarely rebuild where they’ve once been driven away.
Still, there are many other places in the metropolitan area for them to go, as the explosive growth of the crow population indicates.
The metro government estimates that between 1985 and 1999, the number of crows in Tokyo’s 23 wards shot up threefold to 21,000. The number of complaints is paralleling this growth.
According to metro officials, 511 complaints over crows — their noisy cries, acts of intimidation and direct attacks — were filed in fiscal 1999.
Experts agree that the population growth can be linked to the increase in the city’s garbage. Between 1985 and 1989, the amount generated in Tokyo’s 23 wards leapt by 1.1 million tons — almost the same amount that Sapporo, a city of 1.7 million people, produces in an entire year.
“Since the burst of the bubble economy, the amount of garbage itself has declined, but the introduction of translucent garbage bags has increased actual chances for crows to find food,” said Michio Matsuda, author of the recently published book “Crows: Why They Attack.”
In addition to their sheer number, Matsuda said the emergence of a new, more daring generation of crows has contributed to the rise in problems between the birds and humans.
“They used to be scared of people. However, during the bubble economy, young crows scavenging downtown areas found people did not pay attention to them, much less try to drive them away from garbage sites,” he said.
The metro officials said they were fully aware of the relationship between crows and garbage, and they suggested that trash reduction efforts should be the pillar of a new campaign to manage the crow plague.
The project, started in mid-June, aims to eventually bring down the number of crows to the 1985 level, when there was only a small number of complaints reported.
Meanwhile, the officials are appealing to citizens for their cooperation in reducing birds’ access to garbage, such as by covering trash put out on the street for collection with nets or lids.
But they are not optimistic such practices will take root among Tokyoites, given their hectic lifestyles.
In an attempt to deny early birds their prize, the western Tokyo suburb of Mitaka will start a red-eye garbage collection service in October for about 5,700 households around JR Mitaka Station.
City officials decided to launch the midnight service, the first by a municipality in the greater metropolitan area, after residents responded positively to a pilot service offered in 1998.
In a survey following the project, 83 percent welcomed the service, with many saying crows had stopped scavenging in the area.
Yet, the officials said they doubt the service will be expanded in the city or be taken up in other municipalities since its costs about 50 percent more than the regular morning collection.
“Also, it was easier for us because our city commissions the work from the private sector, which is relatively flexible in terms of working hours,” a city official said.
Meanwhile, bird-watcher Matsuda said reducing garbage alone cannot solve the crow problem.
“Obviously, crows don’t starve during the holiday seasons when there is no garbage collection (and therefore no garbage is put out on the street),” he said.
Urban crows always manage to find food sources, he said, and pet owners, therefore, should be more cautious when they feed their pets as birds often feast on unattended dishes.
Matsuda said the metro government officials, if they are seriously considering reducing the Tokyo’s crow population, have to start by collecting data as basic as the precise number of crows living in the metropolis.
Though a familiar sight, he said, crows remain largely a mystery to scholars because many find them too ordinary to devote research to, he said. This, plus sensational media reports, provokes unwarranted concerns people.
“People tend to imagine that a flock of crows will attack like in (Alfred Hitchcock’s) movie ‘The Birds,’ but that is very unlikely,” he said.
Most confrontations result from desperate birds aiming to protect their chicks, an instinct not unique to crows. “Even swans and sparrows will attack us in defense of their chicks,” Matsuda said.
University of Tokyo professor Hiroyoshi Higuchi, who studies the damage inflicted on humans by urban crows, said less than 10 percent of reported cases involve actual injuries. More than 70 percent consisted of mere acts of intimidation by protective parent birds.
It should come as no surprise that 60 percent of the complaints filed with the metro government in the last fiscal year were made during the birds’ April-June breeding period.
Humans, Matsuda said, should realize they are a part of the problem. “Japanese especially seem insensitive to wildlife, provoking birds by approaching chicks carelessly.”
He believes Tokyo’s crow problem is an instrument of Mother Nature to teach humans a lesson about their wastefulness and disregard for the environment.
Higuchi seemed to agree. “Actually, the crows are the victims. They have multiplied due to selfish human behavior, and now we are going to reduce them?” he asked. “It is egregious that the birds should be killed just for our convenience.”