In July 2020, home prices in Southern California, never a cheap place to live, were rising. There were too few homes and too many buyers, and when you added a pandemic to the mix, it wasn’t easy for a first-timer to enter the market. That was the story for Darya Shumakova, an accountant living in Los Angeles. She and her fiancé had been house hunting for more than a year with little luck.
One morning, she perked up over a listing for a three-bedroom in her price range. Situated on a shady street in a neighborhood called Chapman Woods, the ranch-style home featured a front porch where, as the real estate ad put it, one could “enjoy the breezes!” The backyard boasted an inviting pool surrounded by red and pink roses. It seemed ideal, but as the couple reviewed the seller’s disclosure form, one item stood out: “peacocks.”
Shumakova had, in fact, observed several of the large birds in the neighborhood. It wasn’t the breeding season, so the males didn’t have their stunning, five-foot-long train, but they were still dapper with their blue throats and crown feathers that looked like they could pick up AM radio frequencies. The peahens had the fancy headdress, but they were a gray-brown color and were sometimes trailed by a couple of peachicks.
Compared to the real estate horror stories Shumakova had heard, a flock of ground birds didn’t seem like a dealbreaker. Fifteen other buyers made offers, but Shumakova and her fiancé outbid them all. Doubts crept in immediately. Despite the home’s curb appeal, the inside needed renovations. Then, a few months after settling in, she noticed that one particular peacock had taken up residence in an oak tree’s branches hanging over the front yard.
The breeding season was ramping up and this male was an early riser. He would stir in the tree around 2 a.m. After making a few hooting calls, he would tumble down onto the roof in a sort of controlled fall. If Shumakova hadn’t already been awake, staring at her ceiling and questioning her life choices, she was now, as 10 pounds of bird clomped around on her roof’s shingles and clambered atop the metal chimney guard, belting out his honking song.
After riling up the rest of the neighborhood peafowl, the one-bird marching band would gallivant over to Shumakova’s neighbor’s roof and continue his clamorous performance until noon or so, when he would slip away to decapitate Shumakova’s roses or peck at his reflection in a window or a car door. Late in the day he would return to his roost and go quiet for a few blissful hours.
Shumakova was working from home at the time, and Bob’s daily perambulations—she called the bird “Bob”—were more than an annoyance. Peafowl mating season in Southern California coincides with tax season, the most hectic time of year for an accountant. “It was absolute misery,” she recalled recently. As her Bob problem persisted, she began spicing her flower beds with chili powder. When that failed to deter him, she started aiming a water hose at Bob each morning, hoping to gently persuade him that her new home was not his home. Bob was not persuaded. He’d skitter away and then skitter right back.
Though Shumakova just wanted to get back to work, she’d been drafted into an interspecies conflict that extended far beyond her property boundary. As much as she started to resent the local peafowl, others in her community adored them, welcoming them into their yards and showering them with the seeds and nuts that allowed them to thrive. The drama unfolding in Chapman Woods, and throughout Los Angeles County, was emblematic of a struggle playing out in urban areas around the country—and the world. Peafowl are not native to North America, but they are here to stay. As the birds turn neighbor against neighbor, the question for these troubled communities is whether they can maintain a more copacetic relationship with their feathered interlopers.
here’s no knowing how exactly Bob and his ancestors colonized Shumakova’s neighborhood, but it’s likely that Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin had something to do with it. Born in Ohio in 1828, Baldwin arrived in California during the Gold Rush and became one of the largest landowners in Los Angeles. In 1875 he purchased 8,000 acres in Southern California. Alongside his sheep, hogs, horses, and cattle were peafowl, which Baldwin purportedly imported from India. They kept the snakes at bay and would make a racket if a predator like a bobcat came near.
A couple of decades after Baldwin’s death, a chunk of his ranch and around 100 of his gaudy birds were transformed into the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, located in the City of Arcadia, which named the peafowl its official bird. The blue plumage of these Indian Peafowl distinguishes them from their sister species, the endangered Green Peafowl of southeast Asia. (The Congo Peafowl is a more distant relative.)
Having been traded globally for at least 2,000 years, Indian Peafowl are now found on every continent except Antarctica. (The Bible describes the birds being brought to the Holy Land on ships along with gold, silver, ivory, and apes.) Nearly everywhere they exist, they make trouble. Even in India, where they’re revered as the national bird, they can be a nuisance. Farmers despise them for raiding crops and tromping on seedlings. A study at the Chulanur Peafowl Sanctuary in southern India found that experimental paddies where peafowl foraged had rice yields cut in half, compared to paddies protected by mesh. Last year a viral video showed a bird shattering the glass in an office building in the city of Pune and getting tangled up in Venetian blinds.
In the United States peafowl populations are most abundant in urban areas in warmer regions, including Miami, Austin, and Honolulu. Peafowl in California likely number in the thousands, but the state’s Bird Records Committee—the arbiter of official residents—hasn’t added them to its naturalized birds list. Kimball Garrett, a former ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, says that like naturalized parrots in Southern California, peafowl rarely penetrate natural habitats and aren’t likely to impact native species. By contrast, Wild Turkeys, which were introduced to the state by hunters in the late 1800s, have been blamed for degrading woodland habitats by feasting on acorns and potentially spreading the fungus that causes Sudden Oak Death. “At this point, there is no indication that peafowl are poised to be the next turkeys,” he says.
They still cause plenty of grief among human inhabitants. They’re scavengers, tearing up ornamental gardens as they forage for fruits and seeds, insects and slugs, and the occasional lizard. Territorial males have made headlines after scratching children with their claws. Fed-up Californians have sometimes taken matters into their own hands, purposely steering their vehicles into the birds. A decade ago, the carcasses of more than 60 peafowl were found on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in southwestern Los Angeles County. Some were killed with arrows and BB guns. Others were poisoned. The perpetrator was never found.
Recognizing the need to keep populations under control, some communities around the country have trapped and relocated birds. Florida’s Longboat Key used to have more than 100 peafowl, until it shelled out $25,000 in 2016 to remove all but 12 of them. Rancho Palos Verdes in Los Angeles County has been trapping birds for more than two decades; it has brought their numbers down from a high of around 300 birds in 2014 to fewer than 150 in recent years.
Several California communities, including San Marino and Rancho Palos Verdes, have explicitly made it illegal to feed peafowl. Los Angeles passed a countywide feeding ban last summer, punishable with fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. The catch: The new law applies only to public property, not private yards. Helen Chavez, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said that a blanket ban “conflicted with private property rights” and “would have been very challenging to enforce.”
As Shumakova well knows, if any of your neighbors happen to be offering handouts to the birds, they are bound to stick around and cause mischief. And it only takes one Bob to cause a headache.
arly one morning I headed to the arboretum, a publicly owned park managed by a private foundation and the place where the peafowl explosion began. I knew that love for the birds here ran as deep as the smog was thick, but I was told that one woman stood above the rest in terms of her devotion to them. When I arrived, Kathy Kerran was already there, standing in the members’ line, which gave her early access to the grounds before the Joe Schmoes crowded the place.
Kerran had warned me that she would be incognito, wearing a faux leopard jacket and a brown wig over her blonde hair. She said she was hoping to prevent the birds from spotting her and begging for the peanuts she used to bring. “I’d love to, but I can’t,” she said. It was now against the law and the arboretum director had recently told her she would be banned for life if he ever saw her doing it again. A ban was the only thing worse than not being able to feed them. “Having a bond with them just makes me feel fulfilled,” she told me.
After passing The Peacock Café near the entrance, Kerran shared the story of how she first came here after losing her job following the 2008 financial crisis and was immediately enamored with the flamboyant birds. She has returned nearly every morning since, taking pictures and filming videos of the birds, which she posts on YouTube under the name peacocklover27. (One of her videos of peafowl mating has garnered 30 million views.) She has also self-published five books about the birds, filled with pictures and poetry.
We soon came to a nook surrounded by cacti, where I saw my first peacock, poised and self-serious, standing sentry in his clown clothes. A female entered his field of view, and his upper tail coverts, which had been hanging off his rump like a hoop skirt, exploded like a supernova. As his feathers shimmered in the sun, I couldn’t help but succumb to his spell. It was like falling into a rainbow. The feathers get their colors not from the usual pigments, which absorb certain wavelengths of light, but from microscopic structures that act like a prism, separating out the various wavelengths of light passing through them. The males orient their trains at about a 45-degree angle with respect to the sun and the female they wish to impress, generating the most vibrant blue-green color in her eyes.
When I met with the director of the arboretum, Richard Schulhof, he admitted that he had once felt conflicted about the hundred or so peafowl on the grounds. “When I came here, I just immediately noticed that there were piles of poop, which, you know, can be an issue.” There was also the physical damage the birds caused to some plants. “But then,” Schulhof said, “I began to see how much people love them.” He now enthusiastically participates in “Peacock Primetime,” the breeding season festivities at the arboretum, which serves more than 600,000 visitors annually. In past years it has held a peacock fashion show and a peacock call–mimicking contest. “People come here specifically to see this wonderful courtship display, so you can’t argue with that,” he said.
Perhaps the only person in human history put off by the peacock’s wiles was Charles Darwin. “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” he wrote in an 1860 letter. Darwin was apparently at a loss to explain how such ungainly ostentations could evolve merely via natural selection. After all, such feathers are energetically costly to grow and must certainly impact a bird’s ability to escape predators.
Darwin and his acolytes eventually reasoned that, at one time, a longer train might have signaled to a female that a male was healthy and had good genes. As females with a preference for longer trains mated with males with longer trains, they posited, the preference and the trait became linked, a process known as runaway sexual selection.
Though the peacock’s train has long been a textbook example of sexual selection, Roslyn Dakin, an animal behavior researcher at Carleton University in Canada, felt there was much more to learn. Fourteen years ago she came to the arboretum for part of her doctoral research and quickly discovered just how intense the competition for mates was. Half of the 116 males she followed here and at a zoo in Winnipeg, where she also worked, failed to mate at all during her hundreds of hours of observations. Meanwhile, about 5 percent of peacocks dominated each year, mating up to 20 times apiece. The secret to their mating success, however, had little to do with train length or their number of eyespots. Instead, Dakin found, peahens chose males with the most brilliant blue eyespots.
The peachicks resulting from these matings stay with their mothers for nearly a year, which provides them ample opportunity to absorb survival tips for life in the burbs. The birds have a sophisticated series of alarm calls, and when one spots a predator, like a coyote, another denizen of the Los Angeles streets, they gang up on it and force it to leave. Likewise, if one bird discovers a homeowner providing food, it won’t be long until the others learn about it.
The arboretum frequently gets calls that one of its birds has escaped, and employees patiently explain that the birds are feral and can come and go as they plea