Squawk On By

It's Peacock Day at The Arboretum while seasoned birds flock to Boston Court.

5 mins read
A bird standing in front of a forest
Photo: Brian Diaz, Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Garden

Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Garden (aka The Arboretum) honors the showiest of local birds on Saturday, April 20, from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM when we celebrate Peacock Day.

We’re happy knowing that National Squirrel Appreciation Day is January 21, National Mouse Day is March 21, World Rat Day is April 4, April 6 is National Jay Day, April 27 is International Crow and Raven Appreciation Day. National Skunk Day is June 14, the first Saturday of September is National Hummingbird Day, and the fourth Saturday of September is International Rabbit Day. Raccoon Appreciation Day is October 1, and National Opossum Day is October 17-18 (calendars differ, possibly because the opossums froze in place on the 17th and didn’t move again until the 18th).

A close up of an engine
When the peanut party’s over. Photo: Victoria Thomas

We happen to love these species, although sometimes they may be a nuisance. For instance, here’s a glimpse of my car’s engine compartment during our recent rains, when squirrels apparently used the space as a peanut party lounge.

But just as not everyone feels the love for all of the above, the most extra creature prowling our driveways and rooftops is, of course, the peacock and not everyone takes a liking to this resplendent member of the pheasant family (Phasianidae, order Galliformes) which, incidentally, includes turkeys and chickens. In many parts of Mexico where the peacock is beloved as a high-status pet, the peacock is called “Pavo Real,” or royal turkey.

You’re so vain

Like any self-respecting rock star, the male peacock never met a mirror or any other reflective surface he didn’t like. So, yes, peacocks may perceive their handsome reflection as a challenge from another bird, leading to pecked rear-view mirrors and scratched paint. And yes, they poop prodigiously like the rest of their species. And with all due respect to Alison Singh Gee, author of the charming “Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home,” the call of the peacock is, for some, a sound more akin to a dog-toy being ripped in half with a chain-saw than recognizable singing, especially in the wee small hours of the morning.

That said, many residents of our area are thrilled by the shimmery, metallic-glinting presence of these Pavonini, as their tribe is called. The birds that stalk and bustle around our area are Pavo cristatis, or Indian peacocks, with eye-popping teal, turquoise, cobalt, and emerald-green coloring in the case of the dudes. Two other species, Pavo Muticus and Afropavo Congensis, have slightly different appearances and are rarer.

Remarkably, the iridescence of peacock feathers is not primarily caused by pigments but by the structure of the feathers. Optical Interference Bragg reflections, based on phototonic crystal formations within the feather’s barbules (fibers), create the psychedelic display. The scales of a butterfly’s wing have a similar function.

Even more incredibly, the vivid male plumage and far-carrying macho vocalizing are the genetic default of these birds. Aging peahens may seem to switch teams as their estrogen declines, suddenly sporting regal opalescence in place of basic beige and granny gray, and rattling windows with crepuscular cries worthy of a big-for-his-britches male contestant strutting his stuff on “American Idol.”

Sisters doing it for themselves

Menopausal humans may take inspiration from this as we prepare to attend the world premiere co-production of “The Body’s Midnight” from April 18 through April 26 at Boston Court Pasadena, which exemplifies the “legacy” movement currently amplifying female voices past the age of 50. Legacy playwright Tira Palmquist is joined by a legacy director, Jessica Kubzansky, who is also the artistic director at Pasadena’s Boston Court.

The legacy lead character, Anne, is played by Keliher Walsh, as part of the co-production between Boston Court Pasadena and IAMA Theatre Company, a company run by an all-woman team (artistic director, executive director, associate artistic director, producing director, season producer). In short, seasoned birds who no longer qualify as spring chickens may show some surprising new colors and may speak out and speak up even more suddenly, with new authority.

Field researchers have observed that peahens still in their egg-bearing years approach fully plumed males and assume specific, geometrically-angled positions and postures, which allow them to view the male’s feathers at their most vibrant. As a cinematic reference, check out the scene in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” where the newly introduced Ryan O’Neal and Marissa Berenson circle each other in an orbit of cool appraisal.

A bird standing on top of a grass covered field
Photo: Brian Diaz, Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Garden.

Such cues prompt the males to shiver and shudder their tails (as in human courtship) to provide the most flattering impression. Charles Darwin famously stated that seeing a peacock feather made him “sick,” but not because he disliked the birds. Rather, the heavy, oversized tail and its trailing train seemed to refute his theories of selective evolution.

Darwin and his successors ultimately concluded that the male tail, though cumbersome, serves the purpose of attracting more fly-girls. Contemporary research further suggests that the eye spots of the plumes may also deter predators, just as many caterpillars, butterflies and moths display false owl-like or snake-like “eyes” in their coloration to deflect attack.

Don’t run afoul of the peafowl laws

Regardless of how you feel about the birds, understand that it is illegal to kill, harm or harass them. It is also, incidentally, illegal to feed them. Resist all of these urges.

Love ‘em or not so much, the question that most often comes to mind is, where did these peacocks come from, and why are they here? Especially if we’re not feeding them?

We checked in with Jim Henrich, Curator of Living Collections at The Arboretum, who set us straight on a few things. First, how did peacocks get here? Is it really all because of Lucky Baldwin?

Henrich says, “As early as 1854, the Daily Alta California posted a sales ad for peafowl and other birds like Namou geese (likely Hawaiian geese or Nene), singing canaries, and Mandarin ducks at the wharf. Lucky Baldwin acquired three pairs of Indian peafowl in the 1880s from a not-clearly documented source. Peafowls were considered status symbols, and milliners highly prized the train feathers and ostrich feathers. By this time, the media also documented that peafowls were present on several ranches in and around Los Angeles. It’s most likely localized peafowl populations remained from personal collections and after conversion of ranches to residential communities.”

Remarkably, our population of peacocks – the venereal for the group is an “ostentation,” according to “An Exaltation of Larks” by James Lipton – hangs out at The Arboretum without turn-down service or a continental breakfast. Henrich says, “The Arboretum treats all animals as wild. We provide no services for them. Like other birds, peafowl spend their day foraging.  They are omnivorous, consuming seeds, vegetation, worms, insects, and even an occasional snake.”

He points out that “Los Angeles County Code 10 prohibits feeding peafowl in public places. It is a misdemeanor in the 44 cities and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County that contract with the County animal control department.

“To stay on the right side of the law and to prevent unwanted wildlife encounters, he adds, “do not feed them, even unintentionally, by leaving pet and bird feeder seeds accessible. Avoid landscaping with plants to which peafowl are attracted for food. The City of Arcadia has a fine pamphlet about living with peafowl and offers appropriate landscape selections.”

Henrich points out that the Indian peacock is the symbol of the City of Arcadia, appearing on the City seal, City logo, and street signs. He adds that peafowl roost in trees at night but nest on the ground, hidden in vegetation. Peahens’ gray and brown backs, green necks, and white breast feathers provide additional camouflage. 

Henrich also says, “Peacocks molt their ostentatious train feathers, distinct from the tail feathers, annually at the end of mating season. Molting can begin as early as late July and end as late as September—natural variation within the population.”

They’re gorgeous, they have major ‘tood, and they are persnickety. Asked why the birds favor The Arboretum over, say, the more Getty-esque digs at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, Henrich says, “No clue.”

Peacock Day at The Arboretum promises family fun with food trucks, face-painting, peacock talks (well, talks ABOUT peacocks), educational exhibits and photo ops.

Arboretum members are admitted free. Otherwise:
Adults 18+: $15
Seniors 62+: $11
Students with ID: $11
Child 5-12: $5

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/sbik

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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