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A Most Beautiful Nuisance

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

In southwestern Utah, ranchers are equally enamored of the ornate fowl but for a different reason.

“Peacocks are good watchdogs,” said farmer John Doss, who drove 450 miles from Leeds to Mapleton and back to adopt two of the 19 peafowl trapped this month by police officers there. Peacocks sensing strangers are quick to deliver a loud “EE-oh, EE-oh,” a screech often likened to the screaming of a woman or child.

His neighbors are interested in adopting the birds. Eventually, he said, “50 or 60 of them could be placed here.”

The noise was part of the problem in Fairfield, a town of 95,000 south of Sacramento, which is considering establishing a park with an aviary for some of the birds. Some Fairfield homes come with nuisance waivers, in which new homeowners promise not to screech about the screeching. When asked to sign four years ago, Teri Lamb and her husband, Steve, didn’t hesitate.

“The peafowl may not be indigenous, but guess what?” she said. “They were here before we were.”

The only family member not so delighted was her late Rottweiler-terrier mix, Maggie, who “hid for three days after a peacock flew over the fence and landed beside her.”

But less sensitive dogs can help some homeowners. When actor Ed Ames of “Daniel Boone” television fame sought Adams’ advice on what to do about 16 peafowl that had invaded his weekend Santa Inez home through a doggy door, she told him to use his dog.

His standard poodle now keeps the birds away, although Ames’ wife told Adams a few peafowl still sneak in through the French doors.

The cycle of trapping and relocating birds is underway in dozens of communities across the country, and peafowl breeder Mike Johns, of Oklahoma, said he has gotten hundreds of requests for advice.

One suggestion he offers is to first slow the birds down.

“I have heard of people steeping feed in whiskey, but I think grapes with a little vodka in them would work better,” Johns said. “They really love grapes.”

Eating peafowl might be another way of dealing with excess birds, but there is no market for that meat in the United States, said Lewis Eckard, president of the Pennsylvania-based United Peafowl Assn.

But in China two commercial farms raise a combined 120,000 birds a year for consumption, he said.

“As long as you don’t skin them and roast them, they are real good,” said Eckard, who admits to having tried it. “They are little bit gamier than turkey.”

As for the birds of Rancho Palos Verdes, they appear to make up one of the largest wild flocks in the country and theories abound on their origin.

In a report to city officials, peafowl expert Bradley recounted a popular story that Frank Vanderlip, a passionate bird lover who bought 365 acres in the area early last century, received peafowl as a gift from pioneer developer Lucky Baldwin 75 years ago.

What’s more probable, Bradley said, is the story recounted by a Vanderlip relative: A member of the Wrigley family of Chicago and Santa Catalina Island sent her father-in-law 16 peafowl as a gift.

The peafowl eventually were chased off the Vanderlip property by feral dogs, and in the last 20 years various cities on the Palos Verdes Peninsula have tried cutting down the number of feral birds.

Palos Verdes Estates eventually limited to 44 the number of birds the city would tolerate. Bradley said that many years ago extra ones were trapped and released in neighboring Rancho Palos Verdes.

While Baldwin may be absolved of creating the peninsula’s peafowl population, he is responsible for the extensive flock at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum.

The birds migrated into nearby Arcadia and became such a presence there that the city put a peacock on the municipal seal adopted in 1971. Two decades later, residents were back at City Hall demanding that something be done about hundreds of the birds. The City Council rejected trapping, and in early 1993 distributed a brochure titled “Our Neighbors The Peacocks” with residents’ water bills.

The pamphlet, which is still in print, urges coexistence and lists what type of plantings peafowl like (nasturtium) and dislike (hibiscus).

“It’s a matter of embracing them,” said George Fasching, the city’s then-mayor. Today, there are few if any peafowl complaints, he added.

As the brochure says, “Peacocks . . . They’re here to stay.”

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Times staff writer Jessica Garrison and researcher John Tyrrell contributed to this article.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Problems With Peafowl

Residents in communities across the country have debated--often heatedly--what to do about feral peafowl, which destroy gardens, screech and are seen by some as a nuisance. Communities in California where peafowl lovers and irate property owners have clashed:

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Peafowl Facts

Origin: Native to India and Sri Lanka (some related varieties originated in several other Southeastern Asian nations and Congo). The largest members of the pheasant family, peafowl tend to roost in trees, but are not adapted to long flight.

Sexes: Males are called peacocks, females are called peahens.

Life span: 20 years or longer.

Food: Plants, small animals and insects.

Weight: Females, 6 to 9 pounds. Males, 9 to 13 pounds.

Length: Females, 2.5 to 3.5 feet. Males, 3 to 4 feet.

Reproduction: Peahens can lay up to 30 eggs a year, usually four to six at a time. Incubation takes up to four weeks.

Feathers: Only mature males have brightly colored, elongated feathers on the back that lie on top of the true tail feathers. The long feathers, which form a fan that can extend up to 5 feet in diameter, are used to attract peahens. They are shed once a year after mating season.

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The Noise

A major complaint against peafowl is their piercing screech. To watch and hear peafowl, visit www.latimes.com/peafowl.

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Defenses

Ways to discourage peafowl, according to Lynn Adams, who runs a peafowl sanctuary in Santa Barbara:

* Install “porcupine strips” made of small metal or plastic spikes on roofs. The strips sometimes are sold at roofing supply stores.

* Big balloons tethered to strings can sometimes spook peafowl as they move about in the wind.

* If peafowl peck at a window, put dark fabric or cardboard behind it so they no longer see their reflection.

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Sources: Francine Bradley, poultry specialist at UC Davis; United Peafowl Assn. and various zoo Web sites


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