Crows scavenge through bags of garbage in an alley of Tokyo's Ikebukuro entertainment district. Despite measures to control the number of crows in the city, their population has grown to more than 20,000 in the past eight years.
Crows scavenge through bags of garbage in an alley of Tokyo's Ikebukuro entertainment district. Despite measures to control the number of crows in the city, their population has grown to more than 20,000 in the past eight years. Katsumi Kasahara/AP
For nearly a decade, the city of Tokyo has been waging war on its crows.
The campaign reportedly began after a crow buzzed Gov. Shintaro Ishihara as he played golf, prompting a declaration that he would turn crow-meat pies into Tokyo's favorite dish. That never happened.
But the battle continues today, with mixed results.
The sound of crows cawing makes Yumiko Kono's heart beat faster as she pounds around Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo. A long-distance runner, Kono covers at least seven miles a day. She is highly sensitive to sound, since she is blind. She runs with the aid of a companion. A year and a half ago, she was attacked by a crow in the park, an experience that traumatized her.
"A crow landed on my head just for an instant while I was running," Kono says. "It was like it was using my head as a jumping board. I was surprised, then scared. Now, when I hear crows cawing and their wings flapping, I still get scared."
Kono is not alone. Many Tokyo dwellers have been dive-bombed by the big black birds — the species known as jungle crows — that flap around the city. Almost everyone knows someone who has been pecked or pooped upon.
For Alfred Hitchcock fans, it's eerily reminiscent of his thriller The Birds. In that movie, flocks of birds victimized one small town, with hundreds of crows attacking the local schoolchildren.
Crow Population Grows
In Tokyo, it's not that bad yet. But the birds do cause technological havoc. They nest in utility poles and cause blackouts; they even steal fiber-optic cables to build nests, sometimes disabling parts of the broadband network.
Despite eight years of campaigns and millions of dollars spent on the war on crows, their population is rising.
"The crow number increased by 16 percent from the year before," says Toshimasa Uno, Tokyo's crow czar, who works for the metropolitan government's Bureau of Environment. He says the corvine population is an estimated 21,200.
"We think the reason is that crows fly into Tokyo from the suburbs," he says, blaming commuter crows who fly in to feast on the capital's garbage.
"The crow budget for 2009 is about $700,000," Uno says. "The year before, it worked out to around $50 for every crow killed. But we have to spend this money because people are complaining."
Koji Takagi, manager of Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, says the traps tend to catch younger, more inexperienced crows. The birds lured into the traps set up by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government are then gassed.
Koji Takagi, manager of Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, says the traps tend to catch younger, more inexperienced crows. The birds lured into the traps set up by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government are then gassed. Louisa Lim/NPR
Some money has been spent on improving garbage disposal and making the trash less accessible to the crows.
Another prong of the government's crow strategy involves using traps to catch and kill crows. The enormous cages, about 10 feet by 20 feet, have an opening in the middle that allows the birds to enter. The crows are lured by lard. Once in, hanging spikes stop the crows from flying out. Every three days, the trapped crows are taken away to be gassed.
Tokyo's Yoyogi Park has three crow traps. Koji Takagi, the park's manager, says most of the crows caught with these traps are young and inexperienced.
"But it's good to catch the young ones, so they can't breed and increase the number of crows," Takagi says.
"We do get complaints from people opposed to the crow extermination. But this is the policy of the environment bureau. People should also learn to deal with garbage better," he says.
Atsuo Tanaka of the Ginza Honeybee Project says his 300,000 honeybees chase away crows.
Atsuo Tanaka of the Ginza Honeybee Project says his 300,000 honeybees chase away crows. Louisa Lim/NPR
Birds Chased By Bees
Another privately funded project boasts that it has the side effect of keeping away crows. The Ginza Honeybee Project consists of a series of hives kept on the roof of an office block in the swanky central Tokyo shopping district of Ginza. Co-founder Atsuo Tanaka says the 300,000 honeybees are helping repel the crows.
"The bees become very aggressive when they see shiny black objects, because it reminds them of bears or hornets who might attack them. So whenever they see crows, a whole swarm of bees will chase them," he says, adding that the bees are friendly toward humans.
Tanaka says the crows no longer land on or near his building, and they tend to fly lower to avoid the swarms of honeybees. This may be an eco-friendly solution — and one which provides honey into the bargain — but so far it's unproven, and impractical on a larger scale.
The battle of birds and bees seems almost surprising in the setting of Tokyo's high-tech urban jungle, but the war on crows underlines that finding the right balance between man and nature isn't easy.