MINDEN, IOWA -- Dennis Fett and his wife, Debra Buck, share a small farm in western Iowa with about 100 of the most beautiful birds on Earth. Through trial, error and tender, loving care, they have become experts on breeding and nurturing peacocks.
It is a noble calling. Peacocks were known to the Egyptian pharaohs, and Alexander the Great introduced them to ancient Greece. Throughout history, they have been prized for their spectacular plumage and regal bearing.
Fett, 40, a transplanted music teacher from Paterson, N.J., admits to being "mesmerized" by the birds, able "to watch them for hours." Just as in ancient times, there are many like-minded people -- enough to buy all of the eggs for incubation and hatching and all of the chicks that the Fett-Buck farm can produce.
This almost surely has made Fett and Buck, 38, the biggest peacock farmers in the United States. Yet while such distinction has given them considerable fame, it has brought only modest financial reward.
Their goal is to make peacock farming a viable business, but they have not quite done it yet. Their Iowa Peacock Farm markets four of the world's eight peacock species: India blue, white, black shoulder and cameo dun. India blues, the classic multicolored birds common in zoos, are the cheapest, and the rare cameos are the most expensive.
This year, Fett and Buck sold 650 peacock eggs from $4 to $50 apiece, depending on the species. Chicks brought $20 to $300. The couple also sells peacock books, peacock sweatshirts, peacock feathers, feather fans, feather jewelry, feather Christmas tree ornaments and an unending loop cassette tape of peacock noises, which are much more varied and far more unpleasant than the average barnyard ensemble. Fett describes a surgical procedure, which he calls "de-voicement," that eliminates the most offensive sounds.
With all of this, Fett said, "the birds pay for their own feed, barely." To make ends meet, "I substitute teach and work at a delicatessen, and Debbie works part time as a secretary. We're scraping by."
Fett figures that he and Buck need one or maybe two more good ideas to make their farm a paying venture. They are thinking about a bimonthly newsletter and trying to attract a more upscale clientele through highbrow advertising.
Another possibility is to use peacocks in pest control. Fett and Buck discovered last summer that their farm was unique in this part of Iowa in that it did not have problems with grasshoppers. They believe, but have not proved, that the peacocks ate the insects.
"Most people who buy peacocks want them for fun, to have a pretty bird on their farm or to have an exotic pet," Fett said. "But I can't think of anything more beautiful than orchards with peacocks as bug control."
Fett's peacock obsession began in 1981 after Buck's 800-pound pet pig, Charly, suddenly dropped dead, apparently electrocuted in his mud wallow by a lightning bolt. Fett, desperate to console his sobbing wife, offered to get her a replacement pet, whatever she liked.
"Peacocks!" Buck said. Actually, she recalled recently, "it just popped into my head. I didn't know anything about peacocks."
Nor did anyone else. So the couple set out to teach themselves. Technically speaking, peacocks are the males, peahens are the females and collectively they are known as peafowl. They are the world's biggest pheasants, about two feet tall and weighing as much as 25 pounds.
Peafowl are native to India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia but have been domesticated for more than 2,000 years and can handle tough midwestern winters without discomfort. Males will not, however, display their spectacular tail feathers in cold weather nor will hens show their far more modest plumage.
Fett and Buck found that peacocks can fly about as far as the nearest tree but are homebodies if allowed to run free. They will fight with each other or with other fowl but can be trained to get along with almost anything. The Fett-Buck peacocks share a barn with dozens of guinea fowl, geese, ducks and cats.
In the loving hands of their owners, the peacocks multiplied dramatically, but feed costs were astronomical and there was no market for the birds. As far as Fett and Buck knew, the only people raising peacocks were poultry farmers who kept a pair or two as a curiosity.
"We started having so many babies we were stuck with extra birds," Fett said. "We took them to sales and auctions where we had to get rid of them for $5 or $10 apiece, tremendous losses. We were going to have to do something."
In 1986, Fett started writing a layman's guide to peafowl husbandry. He shopped the manuscript, along with the couple's photographs, among several publishers but could not sell it.
"So we borrowed money to do the book ourselves, about $5,000 just for printing costs and another $5,000 to $10,000 for picture preparation," Fett said. "We were scared to death."
"The Wacky World of Peafowl," 52 pages of peacock lore and pictures, became available in January 1987. Fett and Buck had 13 boxes of the books, which they hoped to sell on the telephone to curious clients who had seen their advertisements in poultry breeders' magazines. And they did it.
Local television did a feature on them, local and regional newspapers wrote about them and "we started selling our birds," Buck said. Last July, Fett and Buck published "The Wacky World of Peafowl, Vol. 2," completely paid for by advance sales, and Volume 1 is in its second printing. In May, the couple appeared on the cable television talk show "Attitudes," where they sang a song called "The Wacky Peacock" (music by Fett, lyrics by Buck).
They still receive about 50 calls a week requesting information and send out eight or nine books. Orders for eggs and birds keep rolling in. "We kept telling people, 'We don't have enough to go around, but there are other farmers who will sell some,' " Buck said. "But the callers just told us, 'We want your birds. You wrote the book.' "