Pheasants in Residence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The procession passes through the misty, twisty streets and vine-covered canyons of Santa Susana Knolls every day at sunrise.

The traffic, scant, slows to an occasional standstill. Joggers stare. Dogs bark, and cats give chase.

Because there--right in the middle of the street, near that hairpin curve--strut peacocks. Gaggles of them. Peahens with dishwater-dull plumage peck at the asphalt. Gaudy, plump males roost on any convenient roof, bobbing their metallic blue heads and flashing iridescent feathers for the world to admire.

And, oh, the racket.

You can hear it everywhere: a screech like a cross between the shriek of a terrified human and the meowing of a very big cat.

"It almost sounds like they're talking to each other," said Linda Kellstrom, a Knolls resident and peacock enthusiast who lives next door to the birds' favored hangout off Katherine Road. "One squawks over here. Then another over there. . . . We have the traffic slow down around here so they're not hurt."

Where the feral peacocks came from--and exactly why they settled in these funky nooks and crannies outside Simi Valley--is the source of much neighborhood folklore.

Every tale, though, involves a shadowy bird lady; at least two of the radiant, raucous birds; and some prolific propagation.

The most popular theory: A woman bought the birds as pets nigh two decades ago and let them breed to their hearts' content. When county code enforcers came knocking, the woman said the birds were wild and just happened to live in these parts.

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Another version has an older woman breeding the birds--just a few, mind you. Depending on the raconteur, the peacocks either escaped from their cages during a fierce rainstorm years ago or were set free after the woman died.

"They came from people who had them as pets and set them free or let them escape. They propagate very quickly," said Gloria Goldman, Ventura County's code enforcer for the area. "They walk in all the streets. They do their thing screeching in trees. They nest wherever some sucker is willing to feed them."

Even code enforcers such as Goldman are baffled about precisely how 150 to 200 of the hulking exotic birds--a kind of pheasant--came to nest in this unincorporated swath of Ventura County between Simi Valley and Chatsworth. Chances are, they didn't fly from their native India or Sri Lanka.

Nor did the stray peacock who flashes his magnificent fan near the freeway in Camarillo, or the gaggle of screechers and trillers who delight hikers near Ojai.

No matter. The peacocks are here. And if their proprietary dawn--and also dusk--processions are any indicator, they are here to stay.

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The reason: Despite half a dozen complaints from residents each year, usually during the cacophonous early summer breeding season, county code enforcers cannot regulate birds who don't actually belong to someone.

By county law, no one with less than half an acre may own a peacock, Goldman said. With 10 or fewer acres, a bird lover may house up to two peacocks--four if enough neighbors sign a waiver.

In the Knolls, no owner claims the birds, "so they're free to come and go as they please," she said. "They're pretty out of control. . . . But the ones who are running around wild, we don't have any control over them."

How much locals dislike the peacocks correlates with proximity. With the notable exception of close peacock neighbor Kellstrom, the rule seems to be: The closer the birds, the stronger the dislike.

"Everybody wants to shoot them," said one nearby neighbor with a snort. She declined to give her name. "There's two too many of them--a male and a female."

Many Knolls residents enjoy the mythical birds, but from a distance. From windows and yards, locals watch them clamber onto fence posts, roofs, discarded mattresses and the occasional hammock. The squawks, from high in twisted oaks and scruffy pines, are a little disconcerting, they say, but the birds fit into the area's eclectic, rural feel.

This is, frankly, an offbeat region, just outside the stucco-upon-stucco-upon-still-more-stucco sprawl of suburban Simi Valley.

A ravine sprouts a mud-brown trailer on stilts. Up a ways are flossy, landscaped digs with views of the surrounding rock-studded canyon. Around the corner sit a house covered with old license plates and another with a pink faux-fur-covered mailbox embossed with a peace symbol. No street lights compete with the glow of stars at night.

And peacocks are far from the only animals in these parts, said Holly Huff, a 25-year Knolls resident.

"There are horses, chickens, potbellied pigs, cows, sheep, a lot of cats and dogs, iguanas, chinchillas," she said. "And that's just the people I know." Given this backdrop, it's little wonder the birds have some following.

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On a recent power walk through the hills, Simi Valley resident Rosie Cramer said the peacocks perk up her morning.

"Every morning I walk--coming from traffic and cars--to this natural beauty," she said. "When you see all the peacocks coming down [from their perches], you stop and look. You can't keep walking."

Her visiting friend, Elena Munoz, was similarly awed.

"I'm not from this area, so I'm not used to them," said Munoz, who hails from Victorville. "I think they're really cool."

Cool or not, those who live close by call the peacocks a flat-out menace.

One man who lives in Box Canyon says the pitch of their persistent cries sends him into convulsions. The eat-almost-anything peacocks plunder lush gardens, snooping around for snails, nibbling on niblets and gumming gladioli.

For peacock fans, neighbor Terry Birnie has a ready retort: Try sleeping at my house.

"During their mating season--we just passed it--these peacocks kept me awake all night long, all day long, squeaking and honking and landing on my roof and flying into my walls," she said. "Maybe it doesn't bother other people, but I'm a light sleeper."

And they have trampled her garden.

"I've lost a lot of flowers--perennials, stalks, snapdragons," she said. "They trample tall flowers. If you're a gardener, you wait for months for these flowers. And then they're gone."

Much as Goldman wishes she could assist residents distressed by the peacock mayhem, she says her hands are tied.

"I think, in the old days, when animal [regulation departments] had money, they used to go out and trap them" for release in less populated areas, she said. "That can't be done now.

"But if anyone wants peacocks as pets, we'll help them trap 'em."

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