Crows in the City

Story and photos by Hideyo Kubota

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It was a quiet day in March. I was on a platform, waiting for the train, and I could see a huge keyaki tree. Up high in the tree was a crow’s nest that was left over from the year before.

A crow was perching on the nest and picking up something. “It must be a twig,” I thought. But when the crow flew down to the railway near the platform, I found out that it was not a twig but a hanger, just like the ones we use to hang up clothes! The next moment, the crow flew north, and I lost sight of it.

“A crow is flying with a hanger along the railway! What’s going on?” I thought. And that was the beginning of my story.

Crows are some of the most commonly seen birds in the cities of Japan. When you observe these birds carefully, you will be surprised at how intelligent and interesting they are.

One of their most curious behaviors is that they use hangers for nest materials. But that doesn’t mean there are no twigs left in the city. Actually, I once found a nest that didn’t include any hangers.

Igui and Ugui

I’ve been watching one pair’s nesting behavior for three years. I call these crows Igui and Ugui. (I named them after a place in Alaska that I saw on an American television program.) Each year, in early March, Igui and Ugui started collecting hangers on a metal truss above a railway, used the hangers to build a nest, and laid their eggs.

I wondered where the birds had found all of those hangers. The answer was that they had found them throughout their territory.

When we pick up clothes that have been dry-cleaned, those clothes are on hangers. In the cities of Japan, we keep the hangers and use them to hang laundry on the veranda, where the laundry will dry in the sun. After the laundry has dried, we usually leave the hangers outside for the next time we want to dry some laundry. And then, crows take a few of the hangers.

“How convenient!” I thought. People don’t care if they lose one or two hangers, because the hangers are free and most people have a lot of them.

Crows That Recycle

But that’s not the only source of hangers. On a regular schedule, we put out bags of garbage and bins of recyclables for sanitation workers to pick up. The crows have learned that there is food in those bags. After tearing open the bags, the crows get a feast. At the same time, they find the hangers nearby in the plastic bins.

One day I checked a dozen bins at different pick-up sites and found that more than half of them contained hangers. My city does not recycle hangers, but crows certainly reuse them.

Why Use Hangers?

Why do crows use hangers? I read six books about the behavior of crows and found no scientific conclusion. The books explain that crows use anything they can find to build their nests, including hangers.

Then what about Igui and Ugui’s nest? It seems that they collect more hangers than twigs.

I think they use hangers for four simple reasons. First, hangers are easy to find where people live. Second, hangers are easy to pick up with a beak. Third, the hanger’s triangle shape is worth three twigs, already fitted together. And finally, hangers easily interlock with one another to make a stable structure, such as a nest.

Igui and Ugui were driven away from the railway area. They still use hangers to build their nests—now in a keyaki tree—and they rear two chicks every year.

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