Beauty and brains in Hokkaido (no. 6 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

THE THING TO know about a jungle crow is that it could go 15 rounds with a heavyweight boxer, and swagger out of the ring afterward.

You can see them anywhere in Japan, often in the company of carrion crows. Asia-wide, the range of jungle crows is in the south, in southern China and southeast Asia—where there are jungles. Japan is one of the places carrions and jungles overlap, as carrions tend toward the north of Asia. In Japan the jungle crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) rules coastal areas, but likes almost any habitat.

In Japanese they are hashi-buto-garasu, which means fat-billed crow. Their other diagnostic feature is a steeply sloped forehead, which to humans looks downright Frankenstein-like. Bill to tail they measure 22 inches, between an American crow at 17 inches and common raven at 24.

One day in the far north of Japan—on the island of Hokkaido, Japan's version of Siberia—I found a congregation of crows on a spit called Shunkunitai, where a fisherman was sorting out his catch. Given the gulls' superior ability in water, the jungle crows didn't have a chance with the fish parts thrown in the bay, but they were still right in the action, bossing the gulls around. One stood on the outboard motor, supervising the whole operation.

On the hill overlooking the spit, the crows had laid waste to the Obon offerings in the cemetery. In Japanese Buddhism, Obon (in mid-August) is the time when ancestors return to their former homes in spirit form, and so their families must set out refreshments for them. That means traditional box lunches, beer and pop, fruit, yogurt, breadsticks, even cigarettes. The crows accept everything gratefully; the ancestors go hungry. When the crows have finished, the grapefruit and oranges look like they've been punctured by a drill press.

Could a jungle crow actually operate a drill press? Recent research on corvid tool use in New Caledonia suggests that at least one species, Corvus moneduloides, is in the ballpark. Moneduloides makes two kinds of tools, and—the issue gets fuzzy here—seems to envision a standardized tool, to have a mental template. It does not merely use found objects, as a number of other animals do, but deliberately manufactures a hooked twig and a serrated leaf for reaching into holes for insects and other invertebrates.

The researcher was Gavin R. Hunt, from Massey University in New Zealand (Nature, January 18, 1996). He reports that the crows also take care not to lose their tools. When they fly to far areas they may leave them in a safe place to be picked up later; in cases where they switch feeding areas, they usually take their tools along.

Moneduloides in different parts of the island make somewhat different versions of the tools, but Hunt was not able to determine to what extent the tool use was inherited genetically or learned. The crow research raises questions about the essentialness of language in thinking. If crows can indeed plan and execute ideas without language, does that say anything about how humans think?

Many Japanese say Hokkaido is not the real Japan, and it certainly violates all the rules of Japanese scenery, with rolling, long vistas instead of cramped, steep mountain valleys and densely populated coastal plains. Shockingly, there are even, as in North America, parking lots next to nearly every business—no space problem here.

Shunkunitai is a protected sanctuary in the southeast of Hokkaido between the Okhotsk Sea and Furen-ko, a large brackish lake bordered by marshy forests. Along the spit, not more than a mile from the crows in the cemetery, are the Japanese cranes (Grus japonensis, also known as the red-crowned crane). They lack the crows' chutzpah and brainpower, but are not short on beauty: red crown, black neck, black legs, long black tertiaries that look like a tail, and a snow-white body.

I saw 16 around Furen-ko and on the seashore: five pairs, one with a blotchy tan and white juvenile, plus five young unattached adults. At four-and-a-half feet tall, with nearly 8-foot wingspans, it's hard for the cranes to hide. From my viewpoint at the next pond, their necks and heads rise above the grassy bank like periscopes.

Just about every day in Japan you see the Japanese cranes—on the back of the 1,000-yen bill, that is. They are not the official national bird (the green pheasant is), but they might just as well be. The crane means long life, and its elegant wintertime mating dances are well-known. In recent times, the crane has become a peace icon. In 1955, a 12-year-old leukemia sufferer named Sadako Sasaki, an atomic radiation victim, tried to make one thousand origami cranes, the traditional cure for illness, but died before she could finish. The Children's Monument in Hiroshima's Peace Park commemorates her, and millions of paper cranes have been laid there over the years.

About 400 Japanese cranes remain in Japan (plus more in China and the Korean peninsula). This number represents a steady climb since the 1920s, when fewer than 20 cranes had survived agricultural expansion and hunting in the aftermath of the collapse of feudalism, as firearm laws were being relaxed. In the winter most gather in three main groups near the city of Kushiro. From about March to November, though, the cranes spread out over southeastern Hokkaido.

In Japan generally, habitats are being developed into homogeneity. Sometimes it seems like the countryside is down to concrete riverbanks and cedar plantations. Not surprisingly, most animal species cannot thrive under those antiseptic conditions. As admirable as the adaptable, big-brained crow is, a monoculture of crows (triculture, if you throw in tree sparrows and rock doves) is not what we need. Even a healthy and graceful population of Japanese cranes won't be able to redeem that.