Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, June 5, 2017

Cats and Crows

Cities are not always inimical to wildlife.  In the morning I wake up to the sounds of the crows cawing.  I walk out on the balcony of my Osaka apartment and watch them fly from one rooftop to the next.  They are not beautiful birds and the noise they make borders on bothersome.

If I walk out of my apartment and walk along the small streets to the covered shopping area in Shinsaibashi there is a colony of cats.  They are not pets, they are feral creatures that no one owns and no one would want to own.  Some are in good health, others are mangy and bear the scars of dominance fights among themselves.  In season they are just as loud as the crows but you hear them mostly in the middle of the night.

Both are migrants. Both are considered to be a "problem."  They are pests.

The crows are Corvus macrorhynchos, Jungle crows, and they are native to East Asia.



They came from the forest and when humans built their  own jungles of concrete and steel, the crows came and settled in.  They are very adaptable and they find life in the city to be very congenial.   The humans are less amused:

"The conflict between humans and crows has increased as the crow population increased in urban areas. The major complaint by the citizens was scattering of trash on streets by scavenging crows (Ministry of the Environment, 2001; Kurosawa et al., 2003). The citizens in areas with a higher frequency of garbage scattering had strong negative feelings towards crows."
Kurosawa, R., Kono, R., Kondo, T., & Kanai, Y. (2003). Diet of jungle crows in an urban landscape. GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH-ENGLISH EDITION-7(2), 193-198. Available on-line.

Felis catus, the feral or domestic cat is considered to be an invasive species in Japan.  Hard to know when they were first introduced but this article says 500 AD.  They were welcome because they chased the rodents that ate the manuscripts in the temples.  Today they are simply part of the urban landscape.  If you take a stroll along the Philosopher's walk in Kyoto you will come across an old baby buggy filled with sleeping feral cats.  In some places like Aoshima Island there are more feral cats than there are people:



Both the crows and the cats coexist nicely with humans.  Most of the time.  Note that crows are more likely to be deemed a nuisance to be exterminated while those cuddly kitties inspire efforts to "save" them. 

Personally I prefer to think that they do just fine without human intervention.  Yes, they get sick, they fight, they scatter garbage but so do humans and last time I looked we were weren't poisoning, capturing, and neutering them.   And I admire their ability to find a niche and survive and even thrive in urban environments.  They live off human activities - the building of cities and the waste we produce.  If we are smart and make some compromises, our relationship could be symbiotic with no need for one to threaten the other.  The cats kill the rats;  the crows eat the garbage that we pay other humans to take away.

Above all, I am put off by the idea that they must be under human control - that they are creatures to be domesticated before they can be useful (not unlike the notion that human beings must be "integrated" to be worthy of acceptance).  My views on this probably come from rural family:  "Livestock belongs outside" and "Don't mess with the snake.  Just back off and leave it alone."  As I watch the crows fly past my 14th floor dwelling and the cats sleeping away under trees in the park, I have no desire whatsoever to tame them, to feed them, make them my little friends, or to stop them in any way from doing what they do.  

In The World Without Us by Alan Reisman (a really fine book) he asked what would happen if a big city like New York had no humans at all.  It might, he and others suggest, go like this:

In the first few years with no heat, pipes burst all over town, the freeze-thaw cycle moves indoors, and things start to seriously deteriorate. Buildings groan as their innards expand and contract; joints between walls and rooflines separate...Rain and snow blow in, and soon even poured concrete floors are freezing, thawing and starting to buckle.  Burnt insulation and charred wood add nutrients to Manhattan's growing soil cap.  Native Virginia creeper and poison ivy claw at walls covered with lichen, which thrive in the absence of air pollution.  Red-tail hawks and peregrine falcons nest in increasingly skeletal high-rise structures."

"Long before, the wild predators finished off the last descendants of pet dogs, but a wily population of feral house cats persists, feeding on starlings."

In other words, the crows and that cats will probably make it, even if we don't.  Leaving you with that cheery thought, I am heading outside to enjoy the city.  While it and I are still here.

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