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In Tokyo, Hitchcock Isn't Around, but He Seems to Have Sent the Birds

Crows in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo breakfast on garbage. The number of crows has grown 33 percent in the past three years, foiling the Tokyo metropolitan government's "war on crows."
Crows in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo breakfast on garbage. The number of crows has grown 33 percent in the past three years, foiling the Tokyo metropolitan government's "war on crows." (Blaine Harden - The Washington Post)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 26, 2009

TOKYO -- The crows are back in town, swooping in from the suburbs, feasting on garbage in Ginza, cawing with impunity.

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"Yes, they have returned," admitted Naoki Satou, the chagrined point man for the city's eight-year-old war on crows.

The conflict had gone Tokyo's way until 2006, when the formidably beaked carrion-eaters launched a counterattack. The crow count has since risen about 30 percent.

Besides indulging in their usual high jinks -- ripping open plastic garbage bags, scaring children in parks, pooping on passersby -- crows have been sabotaging the city's high-speed Internet network. Hundreds of fiber-optic cables have been slashed open by crows scrounging high-tech stuffing for their nests. The birds are also blamed for periodic blackouts. At least one has been implicated in shutting off power to a bullet train in northern Japan.

These are jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos), and they are bigger, badder and uglier than their kin in North America. They weigh in at about 1 1/2 pounds and have a yard-wide wingspan. They can clench their claws into fists and punch people in the head, local bird experts say. They sometimes dive-bomb Tokyoites from the rear, with an unnerving whoosh that has been known to cause people to crash their bicycles or fall down stairwells.

Like drill sergeants from hell, they wake up city dwellers at dawn with their deep, hoarse, astonishingly loud caws. Conversations about the birds inevitably allude to Alfred Hitchcock.

But one crow picked on the wrong guy in 2001. It whooshed near Shintaro Ishihara, the often irascible, exceedingly powerful governor of Tokyo, while he was playing golf.

"I intend to make crow-meat pies Tokyo's special dish," Ishihara announced.

And the crow war commenced, with broad public support and not much carping from animal rights groups. Everyone agreed that the in-town population of the mischievous creatures had gotten out of hand. Their numbers had more than quintupled between 1985 and 2001, increasing from 7,000 to 36,400.

At last count, the city has exterminated 105,392 crows, with an estimated 21,200 still at large. Most were caught in traps baited with mayonnaise or lard. They were gassed with carbon monoxide and cremated in one of the city's many high-efficiency garbage incinerators. The city won't say which one.

At the same time, ward governments in Tokyo distributed hundreds of thousands of blue mesh nylon tarps. Residents were instructed never to put plastic garbage bags outside unless they were covered with the supposedly crow-proof blankets.

Tokyo's metropolitan government has incurred $5.3 million in extermination costs -- about $50 per dead crow. The effort appears to have mollified residents, as crow complaints have fallen by 80 percent in the past six years.

Fatigue, however, began to set in three years ago. Crow traps got old and were not replaced. Because of budget cuts, bait portions in traps were reduced, the Asahi newspaper reported. The paper also alleged that the city skimped on mayonnaise to save money, but Tokyo officials insist that crows like lard just as much as they like mayonnaise.

"We were going through a transitional phase that year," said Satou, the city official responsible for crow control. "We couldn't catch as many, and therefore there were more crows."

He said Tokyo residents compounded the problem by becoming less conscientious about their garbage and their blue blankets.

Finally, Satou said, governments on the outskirts of Tokyo have not ridden herd on their crows. Suburban crows, he complained, are commuting into the city at mealtimes.

Many bird experts disagree with Satou's assessment. They say Tokyo is losing control of the crow situation because it underestimates the intelligence of the birds and overestimates its ability to control their numbers through extermination.

"The older, more clever crows never go near those traps," said Hiroshi Kawachi, an official with the Wild Bird Society of Japan. "They are catching only young, stupid crows, not the breeders."

Kawachi said smarter crows have figured out the blue tarps: They lift them up and then eat the garbage.

The only effective and humane way to limit crows in Tokyo is to get more serious about garbage, said Kawachi, who for a year counted crows eating trash in the upscale Ginza district.

He found that when Ginza restaurants agreed to have their garbage collected at night, rather than in the late morning, after crows eat breakfast, the birds' numbers declined by half.

"I am not saying crows are adorable," he said. "But we can quickly bring their numbers down to an appropriate level with smarter garbage collection."

Meanwhile, the city is not backing down from the fight. As well as encouraging residents to be more vigilant with their blue blankets, it is putting out more traps, well-baited with lard.


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