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Going To The Birds? Tokyo Contends With Menaces On The Wing

June 20, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ They’re big, loud and mean. They loot and steal in broad daylight, move in groups, and attack their prey from out of the blue.

Urban Japan has a problem: the birds.

With tons of fresh garbage to eat and lots of safe places to raise a family, cormorants, crows and even owls are flocking to Japan’s capital in record numbers.

And as more and more Tokyo residents are beginning to find, they are not always ideal neighbors.

``Get your umbrella ready: They’re likely to attack!″ Shigeo Yamane of the Urban Bird Society warned as he walked through a seemingly quiet Tokyo park. About 10 yards overhead, a big mother crow perched tensely, ready to swoop.

Over the past 20 years, Yamane has watched birds like this one _ a Corvus macroryhnchos, or jungle crow _ gradually take over Tokyo’s skies. In the past five to 10 years, he says, they have more than doubled in number to about 20,000.

``They are a hardy species, and they have increasingly adapted to urban life,″ he said. ``With lots of food to scavenge, who knows how high their numbers could climb.″

That prospect has City Hall concerned.

Crows generated more official complaints _ around 1,000 _ than any other bird last year.

Most complaints involve the crows’ loud squawking, their penchant for tearing up garbage bags in search of treats, and tendency to startle pedestrians by diving towards them.

This is hatching season and the peak period for such attacks, which usually cause more fear than injury.

The jungle crow has a wingspan of more than three feet and a strong, hooked beak. Yamane says they will eat just about anything, from kittens to week-old French fries _ claims confirmed by the Japan Wild Bird Society.

The crows are believed to have migrated northward from Southeast Asia. Their presence in Japanese forests dates back centuries, but their move into the city is recent.

The birds have enjoyed a fairly high level of tolerance. Buddhism forbids killing animals, and it is illegal to kill birds in the capital without a license.

Yamane said Tokyo has asked the Urban Bird Society to study methods for controlling the population, but said the crows could have a devastating impact on the countryside if they are deported en masse.

``Wild birds could be wiped out, and the damage to crops would be very serious,″ he said.

The reign of the jungle crow has put pressure on such longtime avian city dwellers as sparrows, swallows and even pigeons. At the same time, however, the destruction of forest habitat has driven many wild species into the urban domain in search of food.

Owl, hawk and woodpecker sightings are frequently reported in the Japanese media; dabchicks and moorhens have become so accustomed to humans that they can even be seen nesting in reeds near busy sidewalks.

``This is a very unnatural situation,″ Yamane said. ``The ecosystem is clearly out of whack.″

Across town, meanwhile, a former imperial garden has become a prime example of just how intrusive the birds can be.

Caretaker Shigeo Hiramatsu said over the past dozen years, more than 11,000 cormorants have taken over a good chunk of his park, which for centuries was used by lords and princes as a duck-hunting refuge.

Hiramatsu points to an aerial photo on his office wall showing what looks like a white glacier cutting a wide swath through the park’s deep green foliage.

``Droppings,″ he says. ``So thick nothing can grow on the ground. Even the trees are dying.″

Hiramatsu said that after several attempts at bird control failed, he and city park officials tried to entice the cormorants to move to an uninhabited island in Tokyo Bay.

``We set up decoys, painted places white so it would look like their droppings,″ he sighed. ``It didn’t work. The birds just won’t move. We are really at a loss.″

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