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Tokyo's Feathered Terrorists

Japan's capital has a crow problem, and that's putting it mildly. Roving bands of the big black birds are harassing, attacking-- apparently even stalking--the populace.

August 10, 2000|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — They are on Tokyo's most-wanted list these days, vilified as child abusers, arsonists, grave robbers and cannibals. They eat everything--including the rotten and still-living.

Don't make eye contact, even from the seeming safety of a window. They remember faces and may stalk you when you eventually emerge.

The villains are jungle crows--huge, jet-black creatures with intimidating beaks, killer claws and a caw that sounds like a sea gull on steroids.

About 21,000 of the birds, which are indigenous to parts of Asia, have taken up residence in Tokyo, triple the number of 15 years ago. Until recently, the crows were mostly just an annoyance, cackling like drunken "salarymen" at predawn parties in Tokyo's few trees and having orgies amid the tantalizing, thinly wrapped bags of garbage piled high on city streets.

But the brazen birds, which measure about 2 feet from beak to tail and sport a wingspan of more than a yard, are now on the attack. The Japan Wild Birds Assn. warns not to leave children unattended on terraces or in tiny backyards--and with good reason.

Three-year-old Kimiko Enamoto was with her mother, Yuko, in a city park when five crows suddenly swooped down. When the girl ran, they attacked her from behind, pecking her on the head.

Yuko Enamoto threw one of her sandals at the birds, then rushed her bleeding daughter to the doctor. Kimiko, who escaped with only a tetanus shot, is getting over her terror of birds a lot more slowly than she is her superficial wounds. "I think she can deal with sparrows now," her mother says.

Enamoto theorizes that the birds sense fear--which is why they attacked her daughter and not her friend's little boy, who stood still when the crows rushed them.

"I usually still swing my handbag at them," she says. "I feel like if I see a big bird, I'll show him who's boss."

But the birds showed Hiroshi Takaku, a political analyst, who's really in charge.

When one of his colleagues was being attacked by two crows on the roof of his Tokyo office building, Takaku took off his belt and started swinging it. The birds kept their distance.

But a few days later, Takaku and his colleagues arrived at work to find a crow cavalry awaiting them: Hundreds of crows flew over the downtown office building in a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

"They threatened us by yelling or crying," Takaku says. "We think one crow sent a signal to his colleagues to come back as a group. . . . My colleagues knew they came for revenge."

Hiroshi Kawachi, deputy director of the Tokyo branch of the Japan Wild Birds Assn., blames the mounting problem on the capital's failure to adequately dispose of trash. Some businesses have banded together and hired private trash services to pick up rubbish in their districts at night, because the crows have poor night vision. Some districts encourage residents to use trash cans that close completely.

But in many parts of Tokyo, which requires residents to put their trash in semi-see-through plastic bags, most people just throw nets over the garbage, which doesn't seem to deter the birds much. And Tokyo's move to begin collecting the rubbish at 8 a.m. instead of an hour later is worthless, Kawachi says. "The crows have already finished their breakfast when men come to collect garbage at 8 a.m.--they usually eat at 5 to 6 a.m.," leaving rubbish strewn in their wake, he says.

Fortified by the urban smorgasbord, the emboldened crows then cruise the city. Adults, children and even an occasional bicyclist are all high on their pecking order, particularly in May and June, when the unwary targets venture near protective crow parents hovering over their chicks. Although statistics aren't available, city officials say several injuries have required stitches, and one cyclist who was stalked by crows suffered broken bones in falling.

More serious injuries are possible if the current pattern isn't broken, Kawachi warns. "Crows do not have any morals to distinguish humans from animals," he says of the birds, which are so tough that they sleep in jerry-built beds made of metal clothes hangers.

Somewhat like the Japanese society in which they live, the birds feel most comfortable in a group. They stalk their prey en masse and have even been known to attack lambs and calves in the countryside. A favorite food is road-kill cat, although the crows find the meal even tastier if the unfortunate pet is still breathing.

Sometimes the crows even dine on each other. And although they stop short of killing their young, that doesn't mean they won't eat the babies of other bird species.

Tokyo is striking back with a controversial campaign, led by hawkish Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. His crow antipathy has its origins in a golf course incident: He was attacked by vengeful crows after he hurled his club at them, he told Japanese reporters.

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