Japan has a rich diversity of birds, and even in the cities a good variety can be seen – assuming you know where to look.
Unfortunately, the casual observer has a hard time seeing past the “big four” – sparrows, pigeons, starlings and crows – that make up the most obvious part of the urban and suburban avian population.
Moreover, the latter three all vie for the title of “Japan’s Most Disliked Bird”.
Pigeons, both native and feral, have taken to nesting in and around train stations, on high-rise buildings, in towers and in parks, and leave their signature droppings in huge piles around nesting sites. Many public places have notices asking people not to feed the pigeons.
One kind of pigeon, the Eurasian collared dove or shirakobato (白子鳩) is the basis for the official Saitama mascot, Kobaton.
Why did we end up with a sky rat as a mascot?
Starlings love soft fruit, and damage fruit crops. They mass together in street trees and make an unbelievable amount of noise, and cover the pavement below with their droppings. Some public places even have “Beware of starlings” notices. (No, I made up that last bit. But there are “Watch out for starling droppings” notices, so I wasn’t really lying)
As for crows… they raid garbage disposal sites.
Japanese garbage disposal consists of residents taking specified garbage out on specified days. As an example, in my area, Monday is plastic day, Tuesday and Friday are burnable garbage days, every second Wednesday is can and bottle day, alternating with PET bottle day, one Thursday per month is for cardboard and newspapers… yes, we do get a calendar with all the days marked.
The garbage is placed in plastic bags at a specified roadside collection site in the morning.
Crows have learned that garbage means a free meal.
They can see through clear bags. Researchers have experimented with yellow bags, which crows apparently can not see through, but they are forgetting one very important point – crows are among the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Even if they can’t see through the bag, crows have learned to identify items which may contain food. The crow slits the bag open and… well, you can imagine the rest.
Two species of crows can be found in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area: carrion crows, which are really just country crows visiting the city; and jungle crows which, despite the name, are well and truly at home even in the most urban regions.
Carrion crows (Corvus corone) are known locally as hashibosogarasu (嘴細烏) – literally “thin billed crows” – in reference to their comparatively thin beaks. They are mostly scavengers and are omnivorous. Jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) go by the name hashibutogarasu (嘴太烏), again in reference to its beak, which is thick and evil-looking, and the perfect tool for slitting open carcasses – and garbage bags. Like carrion crows they are omnivores, but with a stronger preference for meat, and will hunt mice and small birds.
Crows typically operate solo or in pairs, but will flock together for protection. They are capable driving away hawks and eagles through group coordination.
Actually, crows have not always had such a poor reputation. They are mentioned in the Kojiki as yatagarasu (八咫烏) – literally “eight span crows”, (one span being about 18 cm) – guiding Emperor Jimmu to the land of Yamato.
Three legged crows, known as sansokuu (三足烏) appear on shrines, and these are sometimes associated with the yatagarasu legend (although this is possibly a case of convergence – the Kojiki doesn’t specify tripodal corvids)
Of course, later crows would have incurred the wrath of farmers for raiding crops, and also become associated with scavenging battlefields and execution grounds.
Today, they incur the wrath of people like bigoted Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, for whom trying to eradicate crows and foreign nationals are pet projects.
And, for pissing him off, crows earn my affection.