Caws for Alarm

I’ve written in the past about the Tokyo urban soundscape, and it’s vibrancy—especially chockablock with melodies, announcements, advisories, and entreaties relayed via speakers on roads and in shops. One example would be the sound of the sweet potato seller, who travels with his truck-oven on the back roads of the city in the evenings, calling out to potential customers in plaintive song. Here’s an example recorded last winter.

I’ve always felt it was interesting that the vast majority of these sounds are all intentionally introduced, not just byproducts of some other activities. This is true even leaving the realm of the human, as one of the most characteristic sounds in the city are the caws of the city’s many crows. Usually you’ll hear one or maybe two in a call and response. But once in a while one might chance on a flock, and the sounds are amazing. Quite different from the grackles I wrote about a few months ago, but still amazing.

Apparently, the native habitat for Tokyo’s crows is the jungle. How they got to Edo, I am not sure. The past few years have led to an almost ten-fold increase in their population here, and it’s felt that this is due in large part to the prosperity habits of the citizens and their refuse. Of course not everybody loves the sounds of the crows, and they can be quite a nuisance even when they are mute. Ask anyone who has awakened to find their garbage strewn all over the driveway by a hungry yet picky bird. They sometimes make their nests out of wire hangers, which they steal from balconies where laundry is put out to dry. And the problems they could create for planes coming and going at the airport were one to be sucked into an engine are stunning to consider. Mr. Jitsuo Hosoya, head of the airport office in Tottori, tells us, “We’ve tried all kinds of sounds, including the roaring of lions and tigers, the cawing of scared crows, and the shooting sound from video games.” The video game sounds blasted through a loudspeaker are most effective, he said. So here we are, back to intentionally introduced sounds in our landscape.

These crows are, as one might say, some tough birds, known to kill pheasants, calves and, it’s rumored, maybe a cow. I love the sounds of the crows, though my Japanese friends think I am truly nuts in this regards. It is a pity, though, that due to their aggressive and predatory nature, they have run off most of the other birds in the city. I long to hear a robin or starling once in a while, a tidings of magpies, or a charm of finches. Global warming has surely had an impact as well, not just in Tokyo, but throughout the world. Some of my British friends, mad birders all, say that they have spotted some species never seen before in their locations, while others have quickly and mysteriously disappeared. How is it in your town? Do you feel any change in the balance of birdsong in the past few years? I’d love to hear some of your field reports. And I’ll see you again next week.

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