Did flocks of crows appear as an ill omen during the Japan earthquake?

We came across the sections of the following video clip on multiple social media platforms, including TikTok, X/Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and DailyMotion. The video was also published on some news sites such as the Spanish sports daily Diario AS, while parts of it were also published in the Times of India.

While there are several versions of the video available on social media platforms with sections added, removed or rearranged, our analysis will be focused on the most common version that we found.

The video comprises of five clips stitched together, each of which show birds in large groups. The caption across different sources on the various social media platforms suggest these clips show crows behaving oddly around the time of the recent 2024 Sea of Japan earthquake, which struck on 1 January at 4.10pm Japanese time.

Clip 1

The video opens with a video of a flock of birds flying in the sky and a caption in Japanese that translates to ‘a large flock (of birds). An omen of something?’. For the first few seconds, a man describing the video appears in the upper left of the frame. ‘Crows in Japan have been behaving strangely before, after and during the earthquake. Take a look’, he says.

Based on our observation, we assess the video of the narrator as highly likely to be AI-generated. Reflections and shadows appear unnatural, along with the movement of the narrator, whose upper face and eyes barely move. Moreover, the narrator’s shirt collar moves in an unnatural fashion in sync with the narrator’s mouth movements.

Conducting a reverse image search on keyframes in the video led us to a TikTok video posted on 27 December, 5 days before the earthquake. We could not identify the location where the video was taken.

Further investigation of the bird activity in the video led us to the discovery that the birds were not in fact crows, but a common murmuration of starlings, of which the White-cheeked starling is a common bird species in Japan. Starlings around the world often form murmurations and are believed to do so to deter predators, communicate and possibly even keep warm.

Clip 2

The second clip depicts crows gathering in a large group on the roof of a high-rise residential building. The sound of crows cawing loudly is clearly audible in the audio of the clip.

The earliest appearance of this clip that we could find on the Internet was in a post the South Korean far-right forum Ilbe on 1 January, at around 6.30pm (after the time of the earthquake), alongside other clips of the earthquake causing violent shaking.

While the clip of the crows itself did not give any indication of the location or time when it was taken, some of the other clips in the post did contain information, overlaid or within the videos themselves, that suggested the clips were taken during the 2024 earthquake.

Crows, like other animals, are likely to be disturbed by the earthquake and seek safety. We found a scientific article from 1933 that described blackbirds, following an earthquake in Long Beach, leaving the roost during the shock, rising slowly in the sky, then descending slowly and settling noisily in the roost.

The second clip may be a display of crows being disturbed by the earthquake in a similar fashion. Even without the earthquake, it is common for crows to gather in large, noisy groups in Japanese cities, where they are often considered pests.

Clip 3

The third clip depicts a video from the perspective of a driver in a vehicle driving past a large flock of crows on a road as he makes a turn.

A reverse search revealed that this video had been posted on 29 December on X/Twitter, with the caption suggesting that crows in Xining, China had become ‘road bullies’.

Using the text on the development in the background of the image, we confirmed that the video had been taken in Xining, China, next to an ongoing urban development project called Jinyu Garden.

Clip 4 & 5

The last two clips appear to be taken in the same location from different angles, with a section cut out. It also depicts a video from the perspective of a driver in a vehicle driving past a large flock of crows on a road.

Though we were unable to determine the origin of these two clips using reverse image searches, captions that appeared in parts of both clips were found to be in Mandarin, roughly translated to mean, ‘a large flock of crows was seen last night around Qinghai’, and that it was unusual. Qinghai province is also where the city of Xining is located.

Natural Reasons for Crows Gathering

We did a search on crow behaviour in Japan in order to determine if there were any natural causes for the crows flocking. In doing so, we found that Japanese cities as varied as Tokyo, Sapporo and Matsuyama had all had trouble with burgeoning crow populations in recent years.

The sizeable crow populations are largely considered to be the result of abundance of garbage, outdated garbage disposal practices, or poor disposal habits, which have given the birds an abundant food supply.

It is also natural for crows to gather in large numbers, and while they often do so in the evening to roost, they also do so to socialise, feed and even grieve the death of their members.

Can Crows Sense an Impending Earthquake?

The belief that animals can predict earthquakes has existed for millennia, though it has never been definitively proven. Historical accounts from Greece in 373 B.C. state that animals deserted the city of Helice days before an earthquake struck, and anecdotal account continue to persist.

A study in 2020 monitoring farm animal behaviour in an earthquake-prone region of Italy revealed unusual behaviour patterns up to 20 hours before an earthquake. We could not find scientific sources specifically looking at crow or bird behaviour prior to earthquakes.

The reasons for this are not clear. The US Geological Survey says that sensitive animals can sense the smaller ‘P wave’ during an earthquake that arrives seconds before the stronger ‘S wave’ that most humans only notice.

The explanations for altered animal behaviour hours, days and weeks prior to the earthquake, however, has not yet been scientifically determined, but one hypothesis is that animals may sense ionisation of the air or smell gasses released from the earth during earthquakes.

There is no consensus in the scientific community whether earthquakes can be exactly predicted, and some suggest that anecdotal accounts of unusual animal behaviour do not stand up to scientific scrutiny due to unclear definitions of unusual behaviour, observations periods that are too limited, and the possibility of other factors influencing the animal behaviour.

Another Case of Superstition?

During our investigation, we found other claims of strange bird behaviour before the earthquake were common, but these lacked important information linking the behaviour to the location and time of the earthquake and ruling out natural behaviour.

Newsweek investigated a viral claim of strange bird behaviour prior to the 2023 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria and found them inconclusive due to the inability to verify the time, date and location of the video.

We also found videos on X/Twitter suggesting that there was strange crow behaviour prior to the 19 Dec earthquake in Gansu province, western China.

At least some of the clips in the video appear to have been repurposed from similar claims regarding flocks of crows in western China.

These claims appear to persist due to pervasive superstitious beliefs in both Japan and China that crows, or the sound of their calls, may be an ill omen.

Miscaptioned Clips, No Definite Link

Having investigated each of the clips in the video in the claim, it appears that only the second clip may be related to the claim of crows displaying unusual behaviour around the time of the earthquake in Japan, though this link cannot be confirmed.

The first clip contains video of normal starling behaviour, while the others display flocks of crows in western China, far from the epicentre of the earthquake.

The video contains unrelated clips and includes no clips that show unusual behaviour of crows in Japan prior to the earthquake. Furthermore, there are entirely natural reasons for behaviour of the crows in the clips. It is therefore false that flocks of crows appeared in Japan as an ill omen of the earthquake.

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