Tokyo, Scene 1: A man is waiting patiently for a bus in Roppongi, thinking about nothing, minding his own business. Suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, a bomber-shaped bird watching from atop an adjacent building delivers its payload. Splat! Dabbing at the white mess dripping down his jacket, the victim sheepishly departs.
Tokyo, Scene 2: A bleak midwinter’s day in the garden of the Institute for Nature Study (National Science Museum) in Shirokanedai. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe. Gray, leafless branches, a thin drizzle falling, pond surfaces cold as steel. No sound but the beat and swish of heavy wings and the lugubrious “kyaa, kyaa” of hundreds and hundreds of crows.
Tokyo, Scene 3: Early morning, Akasaka. A national holiday. Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this. Restaurant garbage bags are piled up and, in some cases, spilling their contents. Few people are about yet, so the street has been commandeered by avian yakuza — enormous black crows milling, pecking, strutting and feasting undisturbed. A full-grown cat no bigger than they are crouches in a doorway, smart enough to know who’s boss.
Scenes like these are common in the capital these days, particularly in the 23 central wards, with their rich pickings of refuse and their many vast, hospitable, leafy parks: the Meiji Shrine, Hamarikyu Gardens, Shinjuku Imperial Gardens and the grassy expanses of the Imperial Palace and the Akasaka Detached Palace, to name a few. Roosting in these havens and feeding with impunity in the restaurant districts and shopping streets, the crow population of Tokyo has exploded in recent years. Current estimates put it at around 20,000 — up from 10,000 a decade ago. That’s approximately one bird for every 1,000 residents, although in the most thickly crow-infested areas, of course, the ratio is much higher. No wonder experts and concerned observers — a group of whom met at Rikkyo University last week for the second and final “Crow Forum ’99” — feel that the proliferation of crows in Tokyo has become a problem too pressing to ignore.
In the normal course of things, birds are a welcome sight in an urban setting. The two species of crow found in Japan — Corvus corone, or the carrion crow, and the marginally more fearsome-looking Corvus macrorhynchus, or jungle crow — are presumably as interesting to ornithologists as any other. There is no reason why an individual crow should be valued any less than, say, an individual Japanese crested ibis — a bird that has been much in the news lately — except that the latter is rare, is far more handsome and has been invested with positive symbolic and emotional significance.
Unfortunately for the “karasu,” however, the big, black, raucous bird carries a load of negative associations that have as much to do with its appearance as with its commonness and its admittedly gangsterlike behavior. It triggers feelings of mournfulness (like its cousins, the rooks and the ravens, it reminds us of graveyards) and has traditionally symbolized discord, strife and death. In “Macbeth,” memorably, Shakespeare has the bird appear as darkness falls: “. . .the crow/ Makes wing to the rooky wood;/ Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,/ While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.”
All of this irrational cultural baggage lurks behind the current alarm, compounding and mystifying it. But there are rational reasons for concern, too: The harm done is real, and the need to address it is urgent. To the regret of local bird watchers, crows have already displaced many species of smaller birds in central Tokyo. Experts also fear that, given their numbers and their aggressiveness, it is only a matter of time before they start attacking people. The question facing municipal authorities, then, is how to go about reducing and subsequently controlling the burgeoning crow population. Mass culling, whether by shooting, netting or poisoning, is self-evidently impractical in heavily residential urban areas. The “Crow Forum” panelists agreed last week that the key seems to lie in reducing the availability of garbage, the scavengers’ food source. On the basis of experience in Osaka and some cities overseas, it was suggested that earlier daily garbage pickups and the use of crow-proof containers, especially in restaurant districts, might be effective; these strike us as methods worth trying.
Something, in any case, must be done to reclaim the city’s streets and parks — and the sooner the better. It is to be hoped that by the time of the next national ornithological convention in October, Tokyo will be able to report signs of a drop in the local presence of “night’s black agents.”
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