Japan Fights Crowds of Crows
KAGOSHIMA, Japan — Fanning out in small teams, the men in gray jumpsuits scour the streets and rooftops with binoculars, seeking to guard this city from a growing menace. They look for telltale signs: a torn garbage bag, a pile of twigs atop an electric pole or one of the black, winged culprits themselves.
“There’s one!” a shout goes up. Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
A member of the Crow Patrol of Kyushu Electric Power in Kagoshima, Japan, looking for nests that are often found on poles.
Sure enough, one of their quarry flies brazenly overhead: a crow, giving a loud, taunting caw as it passed.
This is the Crow Patrol of utility company Kyushu Electric Power, on the hunt for crows whose nests on electric poles have caused a string of blackouts in this city of a half-million on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. Blackouts are just one of the problems caused by an explosion in Japan’s population of crows, which have grown so numerous that they seem to compete with humans for space in this crowded nation. Communities are scrambling to find ways to relocate or reduce their crow populations, as ever larger flocks of loud, ominous birds have taken over parks and nature reserves, frightening away residents.
It is a scourge straight out of Hitchcock, and the crows here look and act the part. With wing spans up to a yard and intimidating black beaks and sharp claws, Japan’s crows are bigger, more aggressive and downright scarier than those usually seen in North America. Attacks, though rare, do happen. Hungry crows have bloodied the faces of children while trying to steal candy from their hands. Crows have even carried away baby prairie dogs and ducklings from Tokyo zoos, city officials said.
While no one knows the precise number of crows in Japan, bird experts and government officials in cities across the nation say populations have increased enormously since the 1990s. Tokyo says the number of crows it has counted in large parks rose to 36,400 in 2001 from 7,000 in the late 1980s, prompting a trapping plan that cut the numbers to 18,200 last year. However, ornithologists say that the actual number in Tokyo is closer to 150,000 birds, and that some crows may have moved to different areas to avoid the traps.
Behind the rise, experts and officials say, has been the growing abundance of garbage, a product of Japan’s embrace of more wasteful Western lifestyles. This has created an orgy of eating for crows, which are scavengers. Some steps taken to reduce crows include putting garbage into yellow plastic bags, a color the birds supposedly cannot see through, and covering trash with fine-mesh netting, to prevent large beaks from reaching the goodies within.
Still, the crows have proven clever at foiling human efforts to control them. In Kagoshima, they are even trying to outsmart the Crow Patrol. The birds have begun building dummy nests as decoys to draw patrol members away from their real nests.
“They are trying to outfox us,” said Kazuhide Kyutoku, deputy chief of Kyushu Electric’s facilities safety group, which conducts the patrols. “They aren’t willing to give up territory to humans.”
The birds seem to be winning. Mr. Kyutoku said despite the twice-weekly patrols, which have removed 600 nests since they began three years ago, the number of nests keeps increasing, as have blackouts. The utility says there were three major cutoffs last year. The biggest was in March, when a strand of wire in a nest short-circuited power lines, briefly blacking out Kagoshima’s central port district. In another cutoff, some 610 homes and businesses lost power for 48 minutes when a crow stuck its beak into a high-voltage power line.
Crows have also shown a surprising ability to disrupt Japan’s super-modern technological infrastructure. In the last two years, utility companies in Tokyo reported almost 1,400 cases of crows cutting fiber optic cables, apparently to use as materials for nests. Blackouts have become common nationwide, including one last year in the northern prefecture of Akita that briefly shut down high-speed bullet train service.
“Japanese react to crows because we fear them,” said Michio Matsuda, a board member of the Wild Bird Society of Japan and author of books on crows. “We are not sure sometimes who is smarter, us or the crows.”
The crow explosion has created a moral quandary for Japan, a nation that prides itself on nonviolence and harmony with nature, because culling programs are the only truly effective method of population control.
Tokyo was one of the first to take lethal measures, under the lead of its strong-willed governor, Shintaro Ishihara. Mr. Ishihara angrily ordered the city into action after a crow buzzed his head while he was playing golf, city officials said.
In 2001, the city began setting traps in parks and nature reserves, using raw meat as a lure. In the following seven years, the city captured more than 93,000 crows, which it killed by sticking the meat in trash bags filled with poison gas. Tokyo says the number of crow-related complaints from residents have dropped as a result.
“In the old days, crows and humans could live together peacefully, but now the species are clashing,” said Naoki Satou, the chief of planning in Tokyo’s environmental department, which conducts crow countermeasures. “All we really want to do is go back to that golden age of co-existence.”
Other communities, like Tsuruoka, a city in the northwestern prefecture of Yamagata, have started following suit. Tsuruoka installed traps last year after about 7,000 crows took over a central park and the playground of a nearby high school, said Soichiro Miura, chief of the city’s environmental measures division. He said students complained of crow droppings so thick they had to use umbrellas, and of birds flying into classrooms to steal box lunches.
While the city said it killed only 200 crows last year, the use of traps has stirred opposition. A local ornithologist, Michiyo Goto of Yamagata University, called for nonviolent alternatives, such as relocating the crows outside the city by building an appealing habitat for nesting, which she said was a brightly lighted area with no underbrush to hide predators.
“Once you start killing them, there’s no end,” Ms. Goto said. “You can’t stop the damage unless you exterminate every last crow.”