Fanning out in small teams, the men in gray jumpsuits scour the streets and rooftops with binoculars, seeking to guard this city from a...

Share story

KAGOSHIMA, Japan — Fanning out in small teams, the men in gray jumpsuits scour the streets and rooftops with binoculars, seeking to guard this city from a growing menace. They look for telltale signs: a torn garbage bag, a pile of twigs atop an electricity pole or one of the black, winged culprits themselves.

“There’s one!” a shout goes up.

Sure enough, one of their quarry flies brazenly overhead: a crow, giving a loud, taunting caw as it passed.

This is the Crow Patrol of utility company Kyushu Electric Power, on the hunt for crows whose nests on electricity poles have caused a string of blackouts in this city of a half-million on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu.

Blackouts are just one of the problems caused by an explosion in Japan’s population of crows, which have grown so numerous that they seem to compete with humans for space in this crowded nation. Communities are scrambling to find ways to relocate or reduce their crow populations, as ever-larger flocks of loud, ominous birds have taken over parks and nature reserves, frightening away residents.

With wingspans up to a yard and intimidating black beaks and sharp claws, Japan’s crows are bigger, more aggressive and downright scarier than in North America.

Attacks, though rare, do happen. Hungry crows have bloodied the faces of children while trying to steal candy from their hands. Crows have even carried away baby prairie dogs and ducklings from Tokyo zoos, city officials said.

While no one knows the precise number of crows in Japan, bird experts and government officials in cities across the nation say populations have increased enormously since the 1990s. Tokyo says the number of crows it has counted in large parks rose to 36,400 in 2001 from 7,000 in the late 1980s, prompting a trapping plan that cut the numbers to 18,200 last year. However, ornithologists say the actual number in Tokyo is closer to 150,000 birds, and that some crows may have moved to different areas to avoid the traps.

Behind the rise, experts and officials say, has been the growing abundance of garbage, a product of Japan’s embrace of more wasteful Western lifestyles. Some steps taken to reduce crows include putting garbage into yellow plastic bags, a color the birds supposedly cannot see through, and covering trash with fine-mesh netting, to prevent large beaks from reaching goodies within.

Still, the crows have proved clever at foiling human efforts to control them. In Kagoshima, they are even trying to outsmart the Crow Patrol. The birds have begun building dummy nests as decoys to draw patrol members away from their real nests.

Crows have also shown a surprising ability to disrupt Japan’s supermodern technological infrastructure. In the past two years, utility companies in Tokyo reported almost 1,400 cases of crows cutting fiber optic cables, apparently to use as materials for nests.

“Japanese react to crows because we fear them,” said Michio Matsuda, a board member of the Wild Bird Society of Japan and author of books on crows. “We are not sure sometimes who is smarter, us or the crows.”