Crows in Japan have long had a bad reputation, perhaps moreso than anywhere else. They are prevalent, noisy, and very commonplace but does that mean they should be regarded as vermin? Colin Tyner, Japanese resident, does not think so. He writes,
“The other day, I was looking out of my window and I spotted a large crow’s nest just outside. Not only was I struck by its size it was huge, easily a couple of meters wide I was amazed how something that large and inhabited by such big birds could have escaped my attention.
Jungle crows, the most common of the three types of crows living Japan, have a poor reputation. Along with the cedar pollen bloom, crow-human conflict is one of the more unpleasant signs that spring is here. This friction occurs in places where the lives of the two species intersect, which is usually early in the morning on our way to work or when taking out the trash. Otherwise, we rarely see them.
Adult birds take care of their nests and their young during most of the daylight hours. They have better things to do than pester us, unless we come too close to their young. The other reason is that they are asleep when people are coming home from work. There are probably good reasons why people in Japan think of a crow cawing in the evening as a sign that something odd is going to happen. For a crow, this is also not of the norm. Crows may be early risers, but they are not night owls.
Really, crows are decent neighbors. Their early morning hours are similar to senior citizens and they are generally quieter. It is also worth mentioning that for all the stories that I hear about people being woken up in the morning by noxious crows, the dogs living in my neighborhood are much noisier, and much more disruptive and frightening. How many children in Japan have to go to the hospital each year because of crow attacks?
Adult crows realize that constant cawing will hurt their chances of getting a meal and increase their chances of being eaten by a predator. I wish that my neighbors’ dogs had this kind of sense and the fear of being eaten. Maybe me brandishing a knife and fork, and licking my lips would do the trick?
I like to think of crows as barometers of the shared animal habitats that we call neighborhoods. They give human beings a reasonably good read on our quality of life and how well we dispose of our garbage. Jungle crows are accustomed to living in the mountains, feeding on seeds, insects and small animals dead or alive.
However, they also work well in an urban environment. From the perspective of the jungle crow, the city and the forest have similar feels, and vantage points, and they not fussy about the aesthetic differences between the so-called natural environment of forests and the built environment of the city. A dead mouse from the top of a tree and a dead mouse from the top of a building is a dead mouse to be seen, and then eaten.
I would imagine that looking in a crow’s stomach would tell us a lot about how we live and the kinds of food we consume. Japanese waistlines are not the only things that have increased with a steady diet of junk food. So has the number of juvenile crows, which can be measured by their constant cawing.
Urban crow populations in Japan grew in concert with the increase of consumer garbage in the 1970s. More food in the open meant that crows could rear more chicks. Heaps of garbage from a crow’s-eye view must look pretty tasty. Certainly, the garbage heap in front of our house must look like a 5-star hotel from a crow’s perspective.
Forget about pigs, cows and horses. Crows are our companion species in an industrialized world. Before the transformation of Japanese society from an agrarian to an industrialized, urbanized archipelago, crows’ insides were probably filled with grains. Now? It is more likely they are filled with instant ramen and other processed foods.
Are we what the crows eat?”
Colin Tyner lives in Japan and is completing his Ph.D. in history.
This article originally appeared in The Japan Times Weekly: April 24, 2010