The sight of a peacock's unfurled, turquoise tail feathers draws gasps of delight from visitors to the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum. But mention the birds to executive assistant director Lee H. Wakeman, and you are more likely to hear a groan.
Although he never asked for the job, Wakeman has become the Arcadia facility's unofficial expert on the flashy fowl. For the last 30 years, he has answered questions and fended off hundreds of complaints about the birds.
"Any time anyone's having trouble with a peacock, they call the arboretum," Wakeman lamented. "It's like they think we send the peacocks out to forage in their yards."
For the past century or so, ever since Arcadia land speculator Lucky Baldwin imported two pairs from India in 1879, the showy birds have been both the splendor and the scourge of the San Gabriel Valley.
The descendants of those two early pairs, and others imported elsewhere in the region, have adapted to the area and propagated amazingly well. They add color and beauty to communities from Glendora to La Canada-Flintridge.
But they also snack on flowers, scatter feathers and droppings everywhere, prance and parade on people's front porches, and holler with a hair-raising screech during mating season--which lasts from February to July.
Some people say the peacock's cry resembles the meow of a large, angry cat. Others swear it sounds like a strangulation victim trying to yell for help.
In Arcadia, where more than 200 descendants of Baldwin's original foursome make their home, police are sometimes called out to investigate reports of women being beaten, only to find the noisy peafowl are the source of the commotion, assistant city manager Alex McIntyre said.
In Glendora every spring, animal control officer Linda Johnson gets calls from residents complaining about the "thunking" noise the heavy hens make when they roost on residential roofs.
Wakeman has heard it all.
"People call up and say, 'What do I do about all these damn birds?' " Wakeman said. "They peck at hubcaps, defecate everywhere and eat cat food.
"They're super-dumb birds. They may be beautiful but they're dumb," he said. "They'll open their tail feathers for a pigeon" in a futile attempt to attract the other bird's amorous attention.
The peacocks have the run of the 127-acre arboretum from sunup to dusk, when they fly into tall trees to roost. But they are considered wildfowl and do not actually belong to the facility, Wakeman said.
And though their proud plumage graces the Arcadia city seal, the city does not want to take responsibility for them either, McIntyre said.
"We treat them as we would any other fowl, like pigeons, doves or sparrows," McIntyre said. The official denials of ownership do not spare the city and the county any complaints, however. When a back yard wedding was spoiled by the peafowl who greedily devoured the colorful pansies planted the day before the ceremony, the Arcadia hostess called the arboretum to complain.
But as far as anyone at City Hall can remember, Arcadia has never been sued over peacocks. The city routinely turns down requests from homeowners who demand compensation when the birds ruin their lawns or bash into their property, McIntyre said. "When a 50-pound bird bumps into a car, you'd be amazed at the damage they can do," he said.
And Lori Fengel whose Arcadia home borders the arboretum, remembers one early morning when a frantic passer-by knocked on her door asking to use her telephone. "You've got to call the arboretum!" the woman exclaimed. "All their peacocks have escaped, and they're sitting in the road!"
From Pasadena to Altadena to Sierra Madre, people are divided into two camps--the peacock lovers and those who consider the swaggering birds a nuisance.
Residents of a north Pasadena neighborhood that became home to about a dozen birds several years ago were not sorry when the peacocks moved on last year.
"Many people liked the pretty feathers, but the accompaniment was terrible, and the defecation was impossible," complained one woman, who asked not to be identified by name.
But Pam Harris of Arcadia is in the peacock fan club. Never mind that she often has to shoo the birds off her front walk and boot them from her doorstep to get into the house.
She likes the sight of the long-tailed birds perched in the branches of two low trees in her front yard.
"They're like colorful chickens," she said, watching as a male spread his plumage trying to impress a dowdy, gray peahen.
Her neighbor, Robert Westfall, said he has learned to live with the birds. "I don't mind them, and the kids love them," he said.
Fengel, who lives down the street, said she too has grown to love the birds, which can live 30 or 40 years if they are not nabbed by coyotes or hit by cars.