How Feral Peacocks Stay Alive in Urban Neighborhoods
A few months after I first started working from home I was walking to Starbucks for a work break, when I saw my first peacocks—two of them wandering down the middle of the road. What? Someone's pets escaped? As soon as I got back home I called a friend, who told me that peacocks were nobody's pets—that they just hung out in certain neighborhoods and people watched out for them.
But peacocks are not native birds, so how do they survive homeless in the city streets? What do they eat? How do they mate and keep their young safe?
They're a beautiful bird and my wildlife-loving heart called out for them to survive. I determined to do some research and find some answers to my questions, starting with where they came from.
Where Peafowl Come From
In order to explore how these birds live, we'll need to keep certain terms in mind. The peacock really refers to the male only (hence "cock"). The female is a peahen, the young ones are peachicks, and together they are peafowl.
Peafowl come from three major areas: India where it is revered (blue peacock), Southeast Asia where it is endangered—Burma, Malaysia, Java (green peacock), and the Congo in Africa (black peacock). They each have a scientific name that differentiates them by region.
Peafowl are related to the pheasant—a European game bird—and all are part of the scientific family of Phasianidae. The African peacock does not have the same brilliant plumage that the Asian peacocks do. It lives in the Congo jungle, where such tails would get in the way of its survival.
Peafowl are not native to the United States. Our equivalent native game bird is the turkey, which has its own distinct family. However, somewhere in the not too distant past, they did all evolve from the same ancestor.
Blue Peacocks Come From India and Green Ones From Southeast Asia
Black Peacocks Come From the Congo in Africa
Taming & Breeding Peacocks In India
Peacocks were being tamed and bred even before 320 BCE. Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya Empire in ancient India grew up in a family that raised peacocks, not long after the time of Alexander the Great. He adopted the peacock as his royal emblem.
India bred peacocks to make their colors more intense. When they noticed that some peacocks were piebald (a combination of blue and white), they bred some to be bluer and others to be whiter. Eventually they created a pure white peacock.
In that country the peacock is revered. Not only is it now India's national bird (as of 1963), but for centuries it was associated with deities, especially those connected to war. Christians also adopted the peacock as a religious symbol, associating it with Paradise and the Tree of Life.
White Peacock Displaying
How Peafowl Came to California
Peafowl were introduced to Southern California by several wealthy Angelenos, including real estate magnate Elias "Lucky" Baldwin (for whom Baldwin Hills was named), who is known as the founder of the City of Arcadia. Others included Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame, William Wrigley of chewing gum fame, and Edward Sargent, who first designed the process of land titling. According to a 2010 LA Times article, Baldwin was the first one to import—from India in 1878 to live on his land in what is now Arcadia.
When Baldwin died in 1909, Los Angelos County bought a total of 238 acres of his land to create the LA Arboretum. Baldwin's peafowl came along with the land. By 2017 Arboretum staff counted 150 peafowl on their grounds alone.
Over time the peafowl spread out to become street survivors—feeding, breeding, and roaming through local neighborhoods. Now peafowl are all over the streets of Arcadia, Monrovia, Pasadena, Altadena, and South Pasadena.
Birds Roaming City Streets
The main neighborhood in which I see peafowl is near the middle school where I drop off special needs kids. (I drive a school bus when I'm not writing.) These kids didn't used to talk, so I like to see them get excited. First I started making peacock mating sounds for them. When they laughed, I started driving them around the school neighborhood to look for peacocks whenever we had time in the morning. When they saw one, I would get them to tell me where it was—on the right, on the left, on the rooftop.
Once, after breeding season, when the peachicks were growing big and we were exploring, we counted to see how many peafowl there were . . . 48 in that one neighborhood! They were all over—in yards, on the streets, on rooftops, and in the school grounds. They played in the bushes, rested on people's lawns, dug in the ground, called to each other as they ambled down the street. I worried that their slowness made them vulnerable to being hit by cars, but that seldom happens, as it turns out. Humans protect them.
Human Protection of Feral Peacocks
You might be wondering why I call them "feral" peacocks instead of "wild" ones. It's because they were once treated as decorative pets, but now roam around. They're used to being in close proximity to humans and are supported by humans, even as they're free to go wherever they want to go.
There's a wide, busy street a few blocks away from my kids' school called Rosemead Blvd. One morning, as we were exploring the neighborhood, we saw peacocks standing near that street. We stopped at the corner to watch. Suddenly three of them took off—one walking into traffic, the other two flying low. I cried out as a car came close to hitting a flyer, but the car slowed down and the peacock rose up, so it wasn't hit. The other two made it across too, as cars slowed to let them pass, and the walking peacock rose heavily into the air.
Another time, at that same corner, we saw a peahen sitting in the middle of the side street we were on, just next to Rosemead Blvd. She wasn't moving. I noticed another car stopped that had been turning off of Rosemead. The driver had gotten out and was looking at the bird too. I suggested she pick the bird up and move it to the sidewalk, which she did. The bird was alive, but catatonic. We all wondered what had happened.
The city of Pasadena has declared itself a bird sanctuary, which blocks residents from killing peafowl deliberately. The city planted signs in heavily populated neighborhoods, like this one, to remind people that killing birds is illegal—which extends to hitting them with cars as well. They're also not supposed to feed them, but many do. Maybe this bird was accidentally poisoned.
How and What Peacocks Eat in California
Like any other primarily ground bird, peafowl peck their food from the ground. In addition to seeds they eat snakes, snails, and bugs—which they often find in compost heaps. They also like pet food, and tender seedlings of flowers and vegetables.
Homeowners who like to take care of peafowl usually throw out bird seed. But they could also provide an open compost pile for them to dig into, or provide access to a garden of peafowls' favorite plants.
Here are some of their favorite plants:
Homeowners who don't want peafowl on their property can avoid providing food by:
- Feeding their pets in the house instead of outside
- Covering the compost pile
- Protecting the garden with wire netting
- Surrounding favored plants with some that peafowl don't like.
Sprinklers will also deter them, since they don't like their feathers getting wet.
Each winter peacocks lose their tail feathers, but then they grow back again longer and thicker than ever. You can tell how mature a peacock is by how long its tail has grown. There's a mature peacock I call Narcissus that looks at himself in the shiny bumper of an SUV when mating season approaches. Every once in awhile he pecks at the bumper, which must scratch it, I'm sure to the annoyance of the car owner.
The plumage of females of all three species is less colorful and iridescent than the males. The green SE Asian peahen comes closest to looking like the male, while Indian and Congolese peahens look relatively dull. All of the females have shorter tails, which they mainly use to warn each other of danger. Like wild parrots, the brilliant and mottled plumage of the peafowl allows them to blend into a natural landscape to become almost invisible.
With humans loving such brilliant colors, breeders can't resist trying to create new ones. Hybrids tend to be more vigorous than the original purebred peacocks anyway—another benefit to "mixing the races." So far there have been purple, red, bronze, midnight, jade, and taupe peacocks bred and, of course, the gorgeous pure white one.
Females are generally attracted more to males with longer, thicker tails than shorter ones. Sometimes young males don't get to mate at all until theirs grows long, which starts at about three years old. The next photo shows the comparison between a younger male and an older one.
The Peacock Dance—How They Attract Mates
When you see photos of peacocks with their tails fanned out, you're actually looking at them doing their mating dance. They flip their tails up off the ground, spread them wide, and start turning slowly in circles. Occasionally they'll stop to shake their booties and rattle the tail feathers, then continue turning.
Often the male accompanies this display with a loud call that sounds like a mix of a baby crying and a cat's mating call. This is the call that I used to make my kids laugh. There may or may not be females around at the time, which suggests that the call is more of an announcement than an attempt to beckon females hither.
If females are present and show a bit of interest, the peacock will start "herding," like in the first photo below. His tail curves forward as he approaches a female to separate her from the others. He can even "urge" her with the way he moves his feathers. If she doesn't like it, she can leave at any time . . . and usually does. I watched this young one for a long time, and none of the four females paid any attention to him.
How Peacocks & Peahens Mate
There have been stories about peacocks hypnotizing females with the colorful eyes on their tails, which then automatically impregnate them, and of peahens getting pregnant from drinking a peacock's tears, but neither of those are true. In reality, what females look for is shorter tails, but thickness in the number of "eyes" or "ocelli," which indicates better health. The smell of a male may play a part too, according to recent olfactory studies of birds.
When a peacock mates, he will wait for acceptance of the female, before jumping on her back. When she gives her little cry and crouches, he jumps on, aligns his tail with hers, and grabs her neck with his beak to hold himself in place while he does his thing.
Female competition sometimes takes the form of peahens dominating a preferred male for several matings, before letting him go to another. They are not polygamous, meaning that their primary purpose is to lay eggs, hence they'll accommodate as many strong males as it takes.
Peahens Nesting & Laying Eggs
When peafowl approach a house, they're looking for food or water, a safe roosting place, or a place to nest. Although peafowl roost in trees and on roofs, when it comes to nesting time the peahen digs into the ground, where her feathers are camouflaged in the dirt.
She fills the nest with leaves and feathers to cushion her eggs, then lays them, one a day, up to 10 eggs. She checks them periodically, moving the unhatched ones under her chest and fluffing her feathers to create as large a warm space as possible.
If you listen to the video below, you'll hear the little purring, clucking sound she uses to reassure her chicks as they hatch. It's a long process that allows her only brief snatches of sleep.
Even before they leave the nest, she is already showing her peachicks how to nibble for food. Sometimes she lets them nibble from her mouth. At two days old the chicks are starting to flex their fledgling wings. At four days old they're starting to wander outside the nest. At five days old they're ready to leave, whereupon she leads them to a place where she can show them how to forage.
How the Young Grow to Adults
Like most ground birds, the young follow their mothers around until they're able to fend for themselves. They learn what food is good to eat and where to find it. They learn how to escape or avoid predators, how to hide, and where to roost. When there is danger, the mothers spread their own tails and blast a single, distinctive call to let the young know, which run quickly to her and hide under her feathers.
Parking my school bus next to the school of my special needs kids, we watched older chicks chasing each other through tall clumps of decorative grasses across the street while, in front of us, the mothers flew over the fence into the schoolyard to peck the ground under the old oak trees.
Baby Peachicks at the Arboretum
How Peacocks Protect Themselves
Although humans protect peafowl from their own predation, that does NOT extend to natural predators. One of the reasons peacocks have not completely overwhelmed the streets is because coyotes come down from the hills around Pasadena looking for food. They've discovered that little dogs and cats are not the only food available. Raccoons eat peachicks too.
Although peafowl are strong birds and will fight back, they're not always successful. They have been seen banded together chasing coyotes away, but the coyotes always come back.
To protect themselves at night, peafowl find rooftops or tall trees in which to roost. We watched to see how they handled rain, but they just huddled—on the ground, on the roof, sometimes on people's porches. They didn't look like they were seeking shelter.
Problems with Peafowl
Not all homeowners like having peafowl around. Like Pasadena's wild parrots, peacocks are obnoxious birds in some ways. I've heard people complaining about noise, scratches on vehicles, and dirty habits. One man in La Cañada, northwest of Pasadena, wrote a letter to the editor complaining about "hundreds of pounds" of poop he's had to shovel out of his driveway.
Some people in other (wealthy) neighborhoods around Los Angeles have actually broken the law and deliberately killed the birds, but they risk a $20,000 fine or three years in jail if caught . . . and authorities are investigating.
Oftentimes when peacocks feel threatened, they like to get high, and that can sometimes be destructive too, as the following video shows.
Peacock Caught in a Liquor Store
By the time I'd finished my research and observed how peafowl live in Pasadena, I'd become curious about how they live in the wild. The following video shows real wild peafowl—at least as far as humans can film them. These are the green, SE Asian peafowl. In case you have peafowl wandering your neighborhood, this will give you a comparison.
SE Asian Peacocks in the Wild
The only question I have left now is how widespread is this phenomenon of peacocks running wild in the streets? I know there are feral peacocks in San Diego and wealthy places in Los Angeles. But where else are they—in other states? Other countries? If you like, you can let me know in the comments below.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.