PASADENA, Calif. — Southern California faces innumerable challenges, from wildfires to homelessness to drought. And then there are the peacocks, which have flourished during the pandemic as efforts to relocate them were delayed and people were stuck at home listening to the birds’ earsplitting shrieks.
The feral fowl, descendants of a small population imported by a wealthy entrepreneur in the late 19th century, roam free by the hundreds in Pasadena and other towns in the San Gabriel Valley northeast of Los Angeles. They often travel in packs, standing in yards, landing on roofs or strolling down the sidewalk. No one knows for sure how many there are, but they are prolific breeders, and during the pandemic they’ve become more visible. And more audible.
Beautiful? Yes. Troublesome? Absolutely. Divisive? Most definitely.
“They wake me up at dawn. They sound like babies being tortured through a microphone, a very large microphone. And that is probably the start of my complaints,” said Kathleen Tuttle, 68, a retired prosecutor who lives in East Pasadena.
These birds have pitted neighbor against neighbor, leading to shouting matches, talk of poisonings (of the birds), road rage (aimed at the birds) and sleepless nights (caused by the birds). On Tuesday, residents’ complaints forced the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to act. The board voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance to prohibit intentional feeding of peafowl. The measure is modeled after a law in the nearby community of Arcadia that makes the offense punishable by a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.
“People should not be feeding these peacocks, pure and simple,” said L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who said a peacock was run over in front of her home in San Marino not long ago. “Some of the people are coming from a good place. … But it’s not good for that population. And it is adding to the numbers that we’re seeing.”
Enthusiasts say the peafowl are a blessing, with their gorgeous plumage enlivening neighborhoods. Others view them as a curse. Their raucous mating cries awaken residents before sunrise, they gobble up gardens and tear up shingles, and males peck violently at parked cars when they mistake their own reflection for a romantic rival.
The supervisors vote came as the county and a handful of area towns have resumed a peafowl relocation program that was largely halted in the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic — because of an entirely different health emergency. Virulent Newcastle disease led to the deaths of more than 1 million birds, mostly chickens, and put Southern California’s entire poultry industry on lockdown until it was declared over last year after no more fowl tested positive for the deadly and highly transmissible virus.
Virulent Newcastle disease does not pose a health risk to humans, which might be why it’s little known outside the farming and backyard chicken communities. But it has eerie similarities to covid-19, including how quickly it can spread. As with covid, there is no reliable cure.
At the center of the peacock pandemonium is Mike Maxcy, who worked as curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo for more than three decades before his recent retirement. He runs a company that contracts with city and county governments to move peacocks from residential neighborhoods to large ranches or farms where they can run free with ostriches or other animals. While the Newcastle disease quarantine was in effect, Maxcy had to pause most of his contracts; the alternative was to swab each captured peacock’s anus and send in a sample to the state for testing before relocating the bird.
With Maxcy sidelined, the peacocks strutted their stuff over large portions of Los Angeles County.
Now that he’s back in business, Maxcy works with willing residents such as Tuttle to set up big cages in their yards and lure the peafowl in with food like nuts or berries. Once captured, they are transferred to a kennel before being moved to a welcoming environment.
Maxcy’s fee is around $200 per peacock. It might seem high, he says, until you consider how time-intensive the work is. Also, Maxcy says people have yelled at him and called him a murderer when they see him at work. Those who appreciate what he’s doing, on the other hand, greet him with tearful hugs when he’s removed a problematic peafowl that has been keeping them up at night.
“It’s the most polarizing thing I’ve ever been involved with,” Maxcy said. “Seventy percent of the population hate them and want them out. … Thirty percent love and cherish them.”
In absence of his relocation services, Maxcy said, some detractors take matters into their own hands by trying to run the peacocks over with their cars, poison them or shoot at them with pellet guns.
Maxcy and others say the problem in quiet, leafy neighborhoods like Tuttle’s would not be nearly as bad if there were not residents who put out food for the birds.
Indeed, one such resident, Nancy Adams, lives just a block away from Tuttle.
“I love them,” Adams, 67, said of the peafowl. “I know there’s people here that don’t like them. I say, ‘Why don’t you move?’”
Adams keeps a bowl of water on her porch for the birds. As a couple of peahens and a young peacock wandered onto her front lawn on a recent afternoon, she tossed out handfuls of seeds for them to nibble on. There are some birds she sees repeatedly, she says; one of them she’s nicknamed Cary, after Cary Grant, because of his handsomeness.
Adams was not aware the county was getting ready to pass an ordinance to make peacock feeding a misdemeanor. Tuttle hopes the law will allow her to confront neighbors like Adams, and back up her complaints by pointing to a statute.
But Adams noted that people put out feeders for other kinds of birds, and questioned why peacocks should be any different. She also objects to the county’s relocation project, expressing concerns that Cary would be among those removed. Adams added that her across-the-street neighbor would be devastated if they took a favorite peacock named Fred.
“I don’t know why they feel they need to do that,” Adams said.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tuttle organized a neighborhood meeting with Maxcy present to discuss the peacock issue, but she said it devolved into “an unfortunate disaster” with peafowl lovers shouting Maxcy down.
“There’s a lot of mistrust in every community that has peacock issues,” Tuttle said. “It’s more divisive than national politics. It’s something to behold.”
The peacocks in the San Gabriel Valley originated with a man named Lucky Baldwin who founded the city of Arcadia and imported several pairs from India in the late 19th century. More than other communities in the area, Arcadia embraces the peacocks, which are its city emblem. The Los Angeles County Arboretum, home to more than 100 peafowl, is located there.
Arcadia has had its anti-feeding ordinance on the books since 1979, but Deputy City Manager Michael Bruckner said he’s pretty sure no one’s actually been prosecuted, much less jailed or fined. Instead, publication of the ordinance serves as a reminder that peacocks are wildlife and should not be interfered with.
“They’re part of the aesthetic and fabric of the community … but we do recognize that it is a wild animal,” Bruckner said.
Arboretum chief executive Richard Schulhof said the peafowls delight visitors, especially the elaborate courtship dances that males engage in this time of year, which involve fanning out their spectacular tail feathers. At the same time, he said, the birds are nothing to mess around with.
“Once I counted and there were 30-plus peafowl chasing a coyote down the street, and that coyote was scared,” Schulhof said.
In January, with covid still rampaging and local businesses struggling for innovative attractions, the Downtown Arcadia Improvement Association inaugurated a new mascot, a person in a peacock costume named Perdy Peacock who makes promotional appearances and dances in corny TikTok videos.
Donna Choi, the association’s executive director, said Perdy has proved to be a hit and will be participating in a parade in July. She added that the subdued street life during the pandemic led to an apparent increase in peacock sightings — part of a trend around the country as a variety of wildlife activity picked up during the pandemic as human activity slowed down.
“It was more quiet on the streets and the peacocks were like, ‘Hey I can get some shopping done,’” Choi said. “I think we’ve seen more out and about.”
Barger, the county supervisor, said that even if the peacock situation is brought under control, it might not be the end of her bird-related headaches. There is now a proliferation of wild parrots in the area, she said, estimating that their numbers have quadrupled.