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COLUMN ONE

A Most Beautiful Nuisance

Wild peacocks are eating suburban flowers and ruining car paint jobs. Some towns have had enough.

February 22, 2001|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the sun sets, some of the most beloved--and most hated--residents of Rancho Palos Verdes emerge from hiding, brief flashes of blue and green amid carefully cropped bushes.

Suddenly, one gutsy peacock flutters to a rooftop, his long rear feathers trailing like a Ginger Rogers ball gown. Two of his lady friends land with a thud atop a parked Chevy.

To Melanie Streitfeld, it's a treat. "I feel," she says with a smile, "like I'm in a tropical jungle."

Which is exactly where peafowl belong, neighbor Heidi Emke insists.

"I say eradicate them," Emke says. "These are like giant turkeys moving in."

Well, not exactly giant turkeys. Peafowl weigh only about as much as a small bowling ball, but they do have out-sized effects: They denude plantings (goodbye petunias), leave endless deposits of dog-sized droppings and can screech all night long from their roosts. They also ruin pricey paint jobs while staring at their reflections in car windshields.

And who can blame them for looking? Rarely will you find a public nuisance that is so stunningly beautiful. As a result, free-roaming peafowl--the proper term for peacocks and peahens--are giving wing to scores of colorful suburban dramas across the country.

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, communities strive to keep peace between pro- and anti-peacock forces. In Fairfield, Calif., when debate over the birds flared two years ago, one frustrated resident flung a bag of peafowl feces during a city commission meeting. Rangers at the Point Reyes National Seashore shot five birds, touching off a battle with animal rights activists. The shooting policy is on hold for now.

Then there's Santa Barbara, where about every six months someone tries to relocate a bird by hurling it over the wall of the city zoo.

Peafowl consultants--who are in demand these days--predict that the problem will grow as suburbs spread ever deeper into the countryside.

It's a battle between human and beast that most wildlife advocates are staying out of because the birds are actually domesticated animals, even sometimes used as annoyingly loud watchdogs.

In its native India, Pavo cristatus enjoys official protection as the national bird and has long been the symbol of Lord Krishna. Its value as an adornment for the estates of the wealthy brought it west, and by the 14th century, the birds could be found throughout Europe.

It is unclear when they landed in America--though a peafowl recipe dates from 1839 Kentucky--but feral peafowl here invariably come from the same source: An affluent bird lover buys a pair or receives birds as a gift and, at some point, cannot or will not care for them.

The birds then wander off and learn to fend for themselves.

Peacocks and their mates manage quite well in the American wild, especially in hospitable climates like California's. They feast on small animals, insects and vegetation, have few predators when full grown and can live 20 years. Or longer.

They also have a healthy predisposition toward bearing young. A proud peacock spreading his fan does so for only one reason: to lure peahens to his harem.

Each peahen, in turn, can lay as many as 30 eggs a year.

In Rancho Palos Verdes, one count found 157 peafowl--although some residents insist the population is twice that size. The birds, which are generally shy, have patrolled the city for decades. But a bird population spurt, combined with a local development boom, pushed more of them out of fields and onto roofs and into backyards, where they gobble up pansies and vegetables, in addition to birdseed or kibble that well-meaning people leave outside.

"I always grow tomatoes every year, and they nibble at every single one," said a resident who asked not to be named because she fears her pro-peacock neighbors. "If they would at least just take a few, then maybe it wouldn't be so bad."

The Rancho Palos Verdes City Council unanimously voted at a contentious meeting Tuesday night to hire Francine Bradley, a poultry expert at UC Davis, to catch as many as 50 peafowl and send them to refuges or families that want them.

But the $3,000 plan is only a temporary fix, Mayor Marilyn Lyon said. She also raised the issue of future costs.

"My biggest concern is, if we don't get cooperation [from neighboring cities], are we just sort of running in place?"

Lynn Adams, who runs a peafowl sanctuary in Santa Barbara, said she would be happy to receive some of the Rancho Palos Verdes birds. She plans to build a second enclosure on her property to meet the growing demand.

She said she rescued nearly two dozen birds from the tony community of Montecito a couple years ago.

Homeowners complained that the birds were "chipping paint off their Lexus" and messing up their tennis courts, said Adams, who volunteers with the Santa Barbara-based Wildlife Care Network. "People were threatening to shoot them."

The birds "are really beautiful; they are really sweet," she said. "I feel for the underdog."

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