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Crows 'Invading' Japan - 2003-06-26

City residents in Japan are struggling to cope with a new flock of noisy, littering neighbors. Thousands of crows are creating a mess all over Japan.

Japan's crows have become an urban plague, harassing city dwellers. They squawk continuously at dawn, waking up sleeping neighbors. They peck holes in garbage sacks and toss trash onto normally tidy city streets. And the big, jet-black birds have been known to attack people. Japan's Wild Bird Society estimates that about 130,000 crows live in the country, a third of them in Tokyo. That is about four-fold increase from 20 years ago.

Yukihiro Kominami is a spokesman for the Wild Bird Society, which studies and protects birds. He says thousands of crows have moved to Tokyo and other urban districts to dine on kitchen garbage, set out daily in plastic trash bags. He says the crows, like their human neighbors, love high-calorie foods such as meat and mayonnaise.

Ironically, efforts to protect the environment have made life easier for the crows. Several years ago, Japan began requiring all homes to use transparent garbage bags. That makes it easier for trash collectors to make sure combustable trash is separated from rubbish that can not be burned.

It also makes it easier for the crows to spot the bags filled with scraps of food. Every evening, millions of city residents carefully place their trash bags on the street side. And every morning, thousands of hungry crows tear open garbage bags and scatter the contents across the streets.

And all that extra food makes it possible for larger flocks to thrive.

Littering is only one of the problems the birds cause. Crows can be dangerous during the spring and summer. Hiromi Iwasaki is a spokesman for the Tokyo Environmental Bureau.

"Crows can attack people because the breeding season has started. If they see people walking near the nests, they attack from the behind. Some people have fallen off their bicycles while being chased. The number of complaints have risen significantly," says Mr. Iwasaki. "I receive 60 calls a day from residents, complaining about getting hurt and having lack of sleep as crows caw loudly in the morning."

The black birds can stand more than 60 centimeters high and weigh several kilograms. They have big, thick beaks, capable of inflicting serious wounds.

Two years ago, the Tokyo metropolitan government set up a team to remove crow nests and trap the birds. The Wild Bird Society, however, says that will not solve the problem. It says the number of crows will not decline as long as they can easily find food.

Mr. Iwasaki from the city environmental office says each Tokyo district has been offered nets to cover garbage collection sites and keep the birds at bay. He says a survey last year found that the crows have given up trying to dine at four thousand locations covered by nets.

So far, Tokyo has spent about $8 million to deal with the crows. But for many people, the birds remain a frightening problem. Eri Tezuka is one of them. She has lived in central Tokyo for 20 years, and hates the crows.

"Crows stare at me often and I am intimidated by their big beak," she says. "One day, I was eating a snack in the park and three crows flew at me and snatched my snack. That happened to me twice. I got so frightened and ran away."

Ironically, according to Japanese mythology, crows are sacred and serve as the messengers of the gods. They also are the mascot for Japan's national football team - players wear a crow design on their uniforms. The actual birds, however, are far less popular than the football team.