CINCINNATI — One day in September, Gary Michael got in his car and drove 730 miles from Kentucky to Louisiana. He was not alone. His passengers were peacocks.
Because this was real life and not a “Muppets” movie, the peacocks were safely enclosed in cages and not running around loose in the car. They were being taken to their new home at Pinola Conservancy, a private aviary near Shreveport, La., that is home to 300 species of birds.
The two birds, 14 and 21, had long been residents of the Louisville Zoological Garden, where Michael is the curator of birds. But at the zoo, the peacocks had lost their luster — which appears to be something of a national trend.
In recent years, a wave of zoos have purged themselves of peafowl while others have substantially reduced their flocks. Still other zoos have considered going peacock-free, only to have the idea shot down by zoo patrons enamored of the brilliant-blue birds with the impressive plumage and piercing yowl.
How many peacocks have been cast aside? It’s hard to say. The last time the Association of Zoos and Aquariums conducted a census of the Indian blue peafowl, arguably the most popular peacock, there were 1,103 in 113 facilities accredited by the AZA. But AZA spokesman Rob Vernon said there’s no way to tell whether the number is rising or falling.
“Honestly, blue peafowl numbers are not really tracked that well,” Vernon said in an e-mail.
Still, anecdotal evidence of peacock eviction is piling up:
In 2008, the Oregon Zoo sent its peacocks packing. In 2010, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden reduced its peafowl population from 40 to six. Last year, the Denver Zoo considered banishing about two dozen peacocks from its grounds, then decided to keep them. And this year, zoos in Louisville and St. Louis have transferred their peacocks to private farms.
As usual, the National Zoo was something of a trendsetter. A century ago, the National Zoo had “many peacocks” wandering around its grounds in Northwest Washington, according to news reports at the time. Today, the zoo has just three. Spokeswoman Devin Murphy said she wasn’t sure why.
Elsewhere, the reasons for the peacock purge are plentiful. In Louisville, it was “predation problems,” Michael said. Specifically, a great-horned owl — one from the wild, not one on exhibit — decided in 2013 that a peacock would make a good meal. An owl got another peacock last year.
“When I found him at the pre-dawn check, the great-horned owl was perched on the carcass,” Michael recalled.
The Louisville peacocks had already dwindled from at least 15 to four when Michael joined the zoo staff in 1989. Once they were down to two, he said, it was time to find them new homes.
“I’m not a critic of having peacocks at zoos. I’m not opposed to it,” Michael said. But properly managing free-ranging birds had become impossible in Louisville, where, he stressed, the great-horned owl was not the villain.
“Raptors in urban areas have made real comebacks, and we should be happy about that,” Michael said.
In addition to wild predators, the free-ranging peacocks face an even more deadly enemy: HPAI, or Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, commonly known as bird flu. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested that zoos remove their free-roaming fowl because of concerns that they could spread HPAI.
The warning does not appear to have sparked a mass exodus of zoos’ peacocks, but it was the deciding factor for zookeepers in St. Louis.
“With the presence of avian flu in domestic bird populations, the St. Louis Zoo decided to send its peacocks to a local farm as a precaution and at the suggestion of a federal regulator,” zoo spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said in a statement.
In Cincinnati, the peacock population was culled simply because it was getting out of control, said bird curator Robert Webster.
“We had 40 peafowl. Two of them would go under a shed, and six more would come back out,” Webster said, only half-joking. The zoo now has six peacocks, all male, he said, adding that the situation is now much more manageable.
Peacocks similarly ran amok in the Oregon Zoo, which had as many as 30 peacocks until 2002. That’s when zookeepers caught all the males and gave them vasectomies. The zoo was down to about 10 birds in 2008, when one landed on a 4-year-old boy and scratched his face. After that, it was buh-bye, peacocks.
Although peacocks have a reputation as friendly birds, it’s not necessarily deserved. They are obsessed with food and can become extremely aggressive “when you dangle french fries in front of them,” Webster said.
They are also hard on landscaping, digging up flower bulbs along with the squirrels, he said.
And dangers abound during mating season, which occurs in the spring and early summer, when male peacocks fan their tail feathers to court the peahens.
The birds think nothing of trying to peck someone who gets too close to their eggs. Meanwhile, a hormonal peacock “will mate your leg, a tree. They’ll mate your cat. Anything that wanders by,” said Dennis Fett, a peacock breeder and elementary school music teacher, of Minden, Iowa.
Fett, whose nickname is “Mr. Peacock,” has written books about peacocks and has a Web site called the Peacock Information Center.
It’s important to remember why peacocks are allowed to roam free in the first place: They won’t wander off as long as they know they’re getting fed. And they’re not picky when making their selection among a zoo’s many treats, from a toddler’s box of popcorn to leftover lunches at outdoor cafes.
“They’re scavengers,” Fett said. “They’ll eat whatever’s there.”
Sometimes peacocks do escape. This summer, a peacock broke out of its enclosure at Toronto’s High Park Zoo and toured the city for a weekend before returning to its primary food source.
Which was remarkable, Webster said, because, in general, peacocks are not very smart.
“They’re about as bright as a domesticated turkey, which is to say, they ain’t got much going for them,” he said.
Still, the birds are attractive, and people love them. Which sometimes makes it difficult to give them the boot.
Zoos in Albuquerque and Denver considered getting rid of their peacocks after the birds attacked young children. In Denver, it was a 3-year-old boy with an appealing lunch. In Albuquerque, it was a 3-year-old boy who was clawed on the face.
Those incidents prompted public soul-searching about whether it might be time for the peacocks to go. But in the end, they got to stay.
“Seeing them is a great experience for kids,” said Courtney Valerius, 25, who was pushing her baby in a stroller while with friend Katie Osborne, 29, at the Cincinnati Zoo one day last month.
In fact, Osborne was surprised to hear that some zoos have gotten rid of their peacocks.
“Geese,” she said, “are far more terrifying.”
Williams is a freelance writer.
American Dispatches is an occasional feature exploring people, trends and issues making news around the nation.