A Plague of Peacocks: the Stealth Invaders

You’ve probably seen a peacock or two. You know—those large, fantastically beautiful birds the Game of Thrones team would have designed if they didn’t actually exist. After all, most zoos have them, and they are fairly common as pets and wandering ‘landscape ornaments.’ But did you know they’re pulling off quite a successful stealth invasion?

Long prized for its exotic beauty, the blue Indian peacock, Pavo cristatus, has been exported from its native south Asia to other countries for at least 2,000 years for zoos, farming and personal enjoyment.

 

Naturally, some of them escape captivity (or are let go) and even more naturally, they reproduce. So much so that in some areas of Canada and the US they are becoming an invasive pest species akin to rock doves, aka pigeons. Or maybe the European starling is a better analogy. Read on to find out why.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a look at just a few of the places where Pavo has established feral breeding populations.

Phantastic Pheasant Phrequently Phound Pheral 

Peafowl (the proper term) were first brought to the US in 1860, in Kauai, Hawai’i. Since then, they’ve become well established in the wild on several of the larger Hawaiian islands.

From three pairs of peafowl introduced to California in 1879, year-round wild populations in the hundreds have established themselves in several large areas of southern California, including L.A.

They’re also well established in the mountains around Seattle, Washington; all of northern Florida plus Miami, and quite a number of Texas cities, including Houston, Austin, Galveston, Dallas, Grapevine and Arlington. Other states reporting feral peafowl are Wyoming, Louisiana, North Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, Arizona and Colorado. In Canada, the birds have established breeding populations in at least southern Ontario and southern British Columbia.

Peafowl are tropical birds that are hardy enough to survive at least some Canadian winters, which implies that any area that has ever been host to privately-owned peafowl probably has a feral population of them.

(In case you’re wondering about the silly subhead, yes: Indian blue peafowl are Phasianidae, members of the pheasant family.)

Peacock Facts

Pavo flies quite capably, with even mature males achieving near-vertical takeoff, which means it can go pretty much anywhere it wants. It will eat just about anything, including bugs, snakes and lizards, garden plants, flowers and flower bulbs, grain crops, tomatoes, fruit, bananas and onions. Heck, in areas without sanitation services, it’s even known to eat human poop. (TMI?)

Peahen nest on front porch – screen cap courtesy of Global News BC.

Peafowl don’t build nests, they dig a shallow depression at ground level and line it with a few branches. Or not. In 2017, one resident of a Vancouver, Canada suburb found that a peahen had taken the welcome mat on his his front porch quite literally—she’d laid her eggs there and happily incubated them for a month or so.

Peafowl can be long-lived (15 to 20 years); breed at two years and take about four years to reach maturity.

Peahen with 4 chicks. Photo by Makhiel, public domain.

They are prolific breeders: Robert Webster, bird curator at the Cincinnati Zoo joked in a 2015 interview that “Two of them would go under a shed and six more would come back out.” The Oregon Zoo even had to resort to vasectomizing its peacocks in 2012 to control the burgeoning population!

Peafowl are non-migratory in North America, and remain in the same areas year-round. Like starlings, they also gather in large flocks (properly called “musters“) that roost all night in single trees.

Beyond the Beauty

So why do I consider peafowl an invasive pest species? Gorgeous as they are (and I admit I would love to have a few running around my neighborhood), peafowl are not particularly good neighbors.

They rip up roofing material, dig holes in lawns and gobble up garden plants.

Their droppings are copious, quite large (dog-sized), and extremely stinky. The birds have a bad habit of pooping in pools, on cars, driveways and rooftops, and like other birds, their feces carry a number of human-transferable diseases. Plus, they’re messy. As CritterControl.com puts it,

“Because the birds often travel in groups, the amount of feces they deposit can quickly become overwhelming.”

Peafowl can be pugnacious in mating season (March through August), as they will stoutly defend their territory and nests. Strong beaks and tough claws have been known to wound those unlucky folk who, er, run afoul of them.

Like cardinals and robins, peacocks are known to engage in ‘shadow boxing’, which means they will attack their own reflections in the shiny surfaces of expensive cars. (Cheap ones too.) Dents and scratches, anyone?

And the noise! Have you ever heard a major face-off between two cats? Well, give them both megaphones and you’ll have some idea what peacocks sound like. Or, you can just listen to this video. (Turn your speakers up to car-horn volume to get a true representation of the sound.) I have personally heard peacocks calling and can attest that they really are that loud.

What makes their calling extra-fun is that peafowl are easily startled at night and will sound the alarm for some time. If they happen to be gang-roosting near your bedroom, you won’t be happy about the noise. Imagine a lot full of car horns all going off at the same time. At 3:00 a.m.

They also call throughout the night during mating season. That may have been what drove one resident of a Vancouver suburb to cut down a massive mature evergreen tree that was home to about 40 of the 100 or so peafowl that live in the area. Or maybe it was the crapload of, er, crap those birds undoubtedly produced.

It didn’t help him though. Peafowl exhibit philopatry (tendency to stay in the same area) and the displaced birds have now taken up residence on his roof.

Adding insult to injury, that suburb has strict tree-cutting bylaws and the homeowner is facing fines of up to $11,000 Cdn for attempting to manage a problem the city wouldn’t touch.

The ‘Not My Problem’ Problem

Feral peafowl are a classic ‘not my problem’ problem in most areas. Municipal animal control departments don’t consider feral peafowl part of their mandate unless the birds are injured or in some way a danger to the public. Government wildlife departments say that since peafowl aren’t native wildlife, they’re not authorized to deal with them. And so it goes.

Anatomy of A Peacock Problem

Peafowl can be acquired without a permit and kept anywhere domestic chickens are allowed. And there is a lot of interest in keeping peafowl, as this Google “related searches” result shows:

                      Google Related Searches result.

As you can see, I was actually searching for information on controlling feral peacocks. The fact that a search engine considers 5 or 6 queries about keeping peacocks relevant to my search means that there is vastly more interest in owning peacocks than in getting rid of them.

How much interest? Enough to support peafowl breeders in 24 states, according to the United Peafowl Association. Iowa breeder Dennis Fett (not a member of the association) claims he gets “1000’s” of requests for help every year.

Here’s another indicator: In 2004, the USDA surveyed the health and management of 540 backyard/small production poultry flocks. The study included states that are shaded on the map below, and produced some interesting results.

States participating in the USDA’s survey of health and management of backyard and small production poultry flocks in the United States.

Between 2 and 4 per cent of the studied flocks included peafowl, depending on region. (Peafowl were being raised in every studied region.) About two-thirds of flock owners said that their primary reasons for raising poultry were as a fun hobby and/or as a family tradition.

Note that many of the states reporting feral peafowl (WY, CO, MI, AZ, LA, FL and WA) didn’t participate in this study. Since the peafowl have to be escaped domestic birds, raising/keeping them must be fairly widespread in the US.

Why Bird Lovers Should Care

Unlike chickens, which seldom ‘fly the coop’, peafowl obviously can and do escape captivity. Except in Florida, few if any governing bodies provide penalties for releasing them into the wild. Not even the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, which has had an acknowledged peafowl problem for many decades. In fact, that city actually contributes to the problem by trapping and relocating up to 150 peafowl every year! (That’s like throwing water on a grease fire in my opinion.)

As mentioned above, peafowl are prolific breeders. For example, the city of Rancho Palos Verdes began taking an annual peafowl census in 2000, at which time there were 134 birds in three neighborhoods. By 2011 this had increased to 165 birds in four neighborhoods. But by October 2014, the city recorded a 69 per cent increase in peafowl, for a total of 305 birds in five neighborhoods.

In view of the breeding rate, impressive adaptability and high popularity of peafowl, it seems reasonable to infer that the feral population is widespread and growing throughout the US and probably Canada too.

With little or no government appetite to curtail feral peafowl numbers, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see a couple of looming problems.

Ecological and Economic Impact Unknown

Feral peafowl are virtually unstudied in North America: even the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of North America database admits that most of its information on the biology of peafowl is from non-North American literature, so no one really knows how profound their impact might be on native birds, small wildlife and vegetation or on agriculture.

But in their native habitat, peafowl are considered serious pests of cereal and groundnut crops. Several studies in India found that peafowl grazing in test fields destroyed about 50 per cent of germinating grain plants and uprooted newly planted groundnut seeds along the edges of the fields.

Social Impact

In communities where feral peafowl are abundant, they are also socially divisive. It’s very common for residents of these communities to split evenly ‘for’ and ‘against’ free-range peacocks, with the ‘against’ crowd citing damage, noise and sanitary problems while peacock supporters cite the birds’ exotic beauty and the unique local flavor they bring.

Attempts at removing the birds can result in heated outcry from peacock fans, ranging from deluging a city council with angry demands to issuing death threats to individuals and organizations like condo boards and real estate agencies that try to take action.

When it comes to peafowl control, the law is on no one’s side. The birds aren’t considered wildlife or migratory birds, so it ought to be legal to treat them like other introduced, invasive bird species.

On the other hand animal cruelty laws prohibit harming or killing any animals other than vermin or pests—and peacocks may or may not be considered “pests.”  Example: in 2011, a Hawaiian jury acquitted a woman charged with of animal cruelty after she bludgeoned a noisy peacock to death. The jury accepted the argument that the noisy bird was indeed a pest. But the Hawaiian legislature responded by declaring peacocks “not included as pests” under the state animal cruelty law.

In California, killing a peacock can get you up to three years in prison.

Plagued by Pernicious Peacocks?

If you’re currently a victim of the peacock plague there’s probably very little you can do to eliminate the birds, unless you’re prepared to trap them humanely and cart them off to a willing farm or sanctuary for re-homing. But if you do that, better be prepared to face your neighbors’ wrath.

You’ll find some helpful deterrent strategies in the Rancho Palos Verdes Peafowl Management Plan, which also includes a list of plants peafowl don’t eat (and a list of plants they love.)

But the bottom line for now is probably going to be, “If you don’t like them, don’t live here.”

A hundred years from now, the story on this pulchritudinous pest may be different, as lack of action allows further spread and contributes to who-knows-what ecological harm.

 

 

 

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