I want to tell a story about my father, but the crows won’t let me. I have to talk about them first.
When we lived in Tokyo, we shared the neighborhood with crows. Early risers, they would sit on wires, rooftops, or fences, watching us sideways in that way that birds do, the entire eye black, with no white part to indicate if their gaze had shifted and they had stopped watching you. Alerted by internal calendars and clocks telling them which days the wet garbage would appear, they chatted and argued until we brought out the vinyl bags stuffed with rotten food and placed them on the curb.
As soon as the morning offerings were laid out and we humans went back to making our breakfasts and scolding our children, who were sure to be late to school unless they woke up right now, the crows hopped down to the street or sat atop a bag and began ripping it open. After pulling out as much garbage as possible and strewing it across the street like an open buffet, they began sampling. Occasionally a housewife would fly out of the house in her flip-flops to shoo them away, sweep up the mess, and re-bag it. More than one crow must have wondered why we put the food out in the first place if we didn’t want them to have it.
In some neighborhoods people nailed blue netting to a wall or telephone post and then placed the garbage bags underneath. Undaunted, the crows would poke around or through the netting and manage to pull part of a bag out from under the blue ban. One of our neighbors hung an effigy of a crow near the collection area for a while because crows have a natural abhorrence of going near one of their dead. The neighbor took it down after a short time. I think it may have been more unsettling to the humans than the crows.
In the summer, gangs of crows would meet around sunrise. Since there is no daylight savings time in Japan, that meant as early as 4:00 in the morning. Summers are hot and humid and few people have air conditioning in their bedrooms. Many sleep with very little clothing on (this is all hearsay), no covers or top sheets, and with just a fan blowing warm air across their damp bodies. Windows gape open, anxious to solicit the slightest breeze. Even from a distance the crows are loud, but when they are nearby, you cannot sleep through the noise.
I was, and still am, halfway afraid of the crows. In the park where I walked, they often lined the railing near the river and wouldn’t fly away even though they were within arm’s reach. Now and then, one of them would set off a chorus of caws, not unlike the harsh laughter you may have heard in junior high school. The ones on the ground would hop a few paces, cock their heads, and stare. I never stared back. I know better: I’ve seen Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.” The movie did not cause my fear as much as uncrack it. Locking eyes with birds in black trench coats, who are the size of a small dog but have sharp beaks and talons unnerved me. I felt incapable of deciphering what they were thinking, and yet believed that they could easily read my thoughts. The thoughts that said, “I am not Tippi Hedren. Do I look like a movie star? No, right? Please don’t stab me or scratch me. Oh, look. Over there! Garbage and vermin!”
Crow terror reached its peak in the spring. During nesting time, crows brood. In both senses of that word. They want to be left alone, and you are bothering them with your walking about like you own the neighborhood. Why are you walking about when you could be at home making garbage? So sometimes they fly straight at you, flapping their enormous wings, or jabbing at you with their hard, pointy mouths.
Most people don’t enjoy this kind of thing, and develop rational fears of crows. I know some of them.
One of my Japanese friends told me how a crow harassed her husband as he walked down a city street in Tokyo. In the crow’s opinion, the man had no business being there and should have known better, so it repeatedly flew over his head and pecked at him. I thought it might be because he looked like he was already henpecked, but she thought it had something to do with the bald spot on his head. In her theory, the crow looked down, saw the shock of hair surrounding that shiny circle on his scalp and mistakenly thought her husband was trying to carry an egg away.
That’s why I had to write about crows today. My father had a bald spot just like that on the back of his head. And one of these days, I’m going to tell you a story about that.
(Photo on loan from: http://www.pakshimitra.org/maharashtra-birds.html)