Who’s Been Killing the Feral Peacocks of Palos Verdes?

A string of peafowl deaths has the neighborhood divided

Kirk Retz was home one Sunday afternoon when a neighbor called him about a dead peacock. This was in early 2012, before it occurred to him to start keeping records, so he can’t be sure who phoned. It might have been Madeline Kurrasch who’d found the bird, leaden and lifeless next to the Mexican peppertree in front of her house, just around the corner. A 53-year-old construction and real estate lawyer with perfect teeth and a receding shock of honey brown hair, Retz speaks in a measured, low-decibel manner that’s both earnest and chummy. “It was pretty gruesome,” he recently told me. “There was blood all over. Apparently it had fallen from a branch.”

Retz and his wife, Linda—she’s also a lawyer—were intimately familiar with peafowl. The showy birds had been a big reason the couple moved in 2000 from West L.A. to Dapplegray Lanes, a neighborhood in the semirural city of Rolling Hills Estates on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. To Kirk and Linda, the 200 or so peacocks, peahens, and pea-chicks that lived in the neighborhood made the area feel like an Eden within easy reach of L.A. The Lanes, as it’s known, occupies 100 acres of knolls and shallow canyons a few miles up the hill from the smokestacks and shipyards of Wilmington and San Pedro. The neighborhood has just three streets, each a dead-end lacking lights or sidewalks and named for the colors of horses: Dapplegray, Sorrel, Buckskin.

Almost all of the 169 homes in the Lanes are 1940s and ’50s ranch houses, many remodeled and expanded, with white two- and three-rail horse fences on lots that range from one-half to more than two acres. Out front, lawns betray little evidence of the drought. Out back, horses, goats, and chickens can often be found, and most residents have access to the miles of bridle trails that connect Rolling Hills Estates’ 21 neighborhoods.

The city is one of four on the peninsula, with Rancho Palos Verdes to the west, Palos Verdes Estates to the north, Rolling Hills to the southwest, and Rolling Hills Estates on the eastern side. Together they’re home to 65,000 people, many of them bankers, CEOs, and white-shoe attorneys carrying a strong affiliation with USC and a median household income of $158,000, nearly triple that of L.A. County. Seventy-one percent of the residents are white, and 22 percent are Asian or Asian American.

Like others in the Lanes, the Retzes are avid walkers. They love the ocean breeze creeping over the hills, the horsey redolence, and of course the ubiquitous peafowl. While 1,000 or so of the birds roam freely throughout the Palos Verdes Peninsula, no neighborhood in PV can match the population in the Lanes, where the animals have been given legal sanctuary and ranchy delectables—chicken feed, horse turds, organic vegetable gardens—are bountiful. Drive into the community between dawn and dusk, and you’ll spot a peacock before you can straighten your wheels. Then you’ll see more: peacocks strutting down streets, peacocks pecking worms from lawns, peacocks passing the hours on roofs and fences or the hoods of luxury cars, peacocks standing on the branches of pine, eucalyptus, and pepper trees, their long, listless tail feathers refracting filtered sunlight. What you don’t see of the Lanes’ peafowl, you hear. During the day, their proclamations, which tend to be isolated—yeeeeoooowwww!—can sound like a woman in distress. At sunset, when they come home to roost in the trees, their call-and-response escalates into a full-blown symphony of Muppets. The concert tends to quiet after nightfall, but as Flannery O’Connor, who raised peafowl on her Georgia farm, once wrote: “The peacock perhaps has violent dreams. Often he wakes and screams, ‘Help! Help!’ and then from the pond and the barn and the trees around the house a chorus of adjuration begins.”

The telltale signs of peafowl don’t stop with noise. Their pungent, gray-brown excrement adorns driveways, shingles, porches, cars, decks, and the bottoms of children’s shoes. To keep mites out of their feathers, the birds take thorough “dust baths,” often in coveted gardens and delicate flower beds. They’re also known to kick terra-cotta tiles from rooftops, leaving them shattered on the ground. A Lanes resident who’s also a local realtor told me that selling a house in Rolling Hills Estates requires a peafowl disclosure.

Over the years the Retzes had seen a handful of dead peafowl, usually casualties of old age or coyote attacks. But the bird in front of Kurrasch’s house was different. Even peacocks, which are lousy at flying, don’t simply plummet to their deaths. “Madeline and I got some gloves and picked it up for a closer look,” Kirk Retz said. “It was still warm. Rigor mortis hadn’t set in. We pulled some of the feathers away, and when we saw the underside, the breast, it appeared to have been shot.”

Kirk knew that more than a few neighbors took issue with the animals, but the idea that somebody would kill one—with a gun, no less—was disturbing. During the next couple of weeks, two more dead peacocks were discovered, albeit with no apparent wounds. The Retzes met with their neighbors, Jerry and Kathy Gliksman, to puzzle over possible explanations. Could it really have lost its footing, they wondered, and died from the fall? Were the deaths merely a coincidence? Could West Nile virus or rat poison have killed them? Or was someone targeting them? I met with the couples in the Retzes’ immaculate living room in June, where Kathy Gliksman, a polite but direct 75-year-old, did most of the talking. “I’d lived here 43 years and had never seen anything like this,” she said. “It just started hitting us: Something is really off.”

 

Peafowl as a species are generally referred to as peacocks for the simple reason that the males, with their impossibly bright plumage, are more conspicuous than the females, who are comparatively colorless, with drab gray body feathers and a splash of blue from the neck up. Females grow to about 8 pounds. Males reach upwards of 15 but can look as hefty as a hormone-fed Thanksgiving turkey. Their electric blue feathers, flecked with iridescent green, lead to a tail—technically called a “train”—that reaches up to six feet and fans out in a display that’s broader than a commercial satellite dish.

A peacock seen is a peacock admired. In its native habitat of Central and South Asia (it’s also found in parts of the African Congo), Pavo cristatus has been a fixture in mythology and art. In the 1700s, after sacking the Mughal Empire (now India), the Persian ruler Nadir Shah brought home the bejeweled Peacock Throne, a renowned artifact that was likely destroyed after his death and then reproduced; it has been regarded as a symbol of royalty ever since. Lord Kartikeya, the Hindu god of war, is often depicted riding a peacock. In the mid-20th century the nation of Myanmar began featuring the peacock—its national bird—on paper money.

By then the birds were well established in their decidedly nonnative home of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Origin stories vary by a degree or two, but everyone who’s interested concurs that the birds made it to Palos Verdes by the mid-1920s. They’d been introduced by Frank Vanderlip, who served as the assistant U.S. Treasury secretary and president of National City Bank in New York. In 1913, Vanderlip purchased, sight unseen, a 16,000-acre property on the peninsula, which, with its high bluffs and views of Catalina Island, forms the south end of Santa Monica Bay.

One of Frank’s 13 grandchildren, Narcissa Vanderlip, lives part-time on the family’s Rancho Palos Verdes estate, in the gated community of Portuguese Bend. A topographical and arboreal ringer for Tuscan hill country, the neighborhood bears no resemblance to the midcentury and 1960s subdivisions that define so much of RPV. Narcissa is in her late sixties, with long gray hair and glacier blue eyes passed down from her maternal Norwegian ancestors. Her grandmother designed the main house like a proper Italian villa. The decor inside evokes the Renaissance era, with walls that are now in need of new plaster and paint. We talked in the garden among rows of olive and cypress trees and giant terra-cotta pots imported from Italy. Not a peafowl was in sight, although the occasional screech could be heard in the distance. “As you can see, there aren’t many left here,” Narcissa said. “They’re scattered throughout the peninsula, but they were very much a part of my life. My grandfather was a huge bird lover.”

As legend has it, Frank Vanderlip became fond of peafowl while visiting the estate of California developer and business tycoon Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, in the San Gabriel Valley town of Arcadia, where about 250 of the birds still live. (The city even features a peacock on some of its signs.) Depending on whom you ask, a relative of Baldwin (possibly his daughter) gave Vanderlip four (or maybe it was six) pairs of peafowl. During mating season, which lasts from spring to midsummer—many residents swear it starts in January—each pair produced as many as nine eggs, as is their biological custom. Though peafowl roost in trees, they build their nests on the ground. Peahens stay close to their eggs and chicks during the day; before finding a nearby branch to sleep on each night, they make sure their charges are camouflaged. Native animals such as raccoons, coyotes, ravens, and turkey vultures, as well as house cats, might snatch an egg or chick, but the 28-day incubation and mothering period is typically smooth in PV. At about six months, the chicks are strong enough to hop or fly into the trees and strike out on their own for the remaining 10 to 15 years they’re expected to live. But because they’re undiscerning eaters, they don’t need to go far.

The peafowl of Palos Verdes descend from a species known as India Blue. “Their gene pool has done very well,” says Dennis Fett, an Iowa-based peafowl farmer and author of The Wacky World of Peafowl (volumes 1 and 2). In the early 1990s, Fett conducted the most reliable census on the birds of the Lanes. “They don’t have any inbreeding,” he says. In other words, they’ll continue to flourish as long as we allow them to.

And therein lies the problem for residents who resent the birds’ rather conspicuous footprint: Not everyone in Palos Verdes wants them to multiply. Standing near the original peafowl pens on her family’s property, Narcissa said she understood how residents of Dapplegray Lanes could grow frustrated by peacock-related headaches. But, she added, “if you spend any time in Palos Verdes, you become very aware of the birds. In my experience, most people just get used to it.”

 

After the third dead peacock was discovered in the Lanes, the Retzes and Gliksmans called the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Without witnesses or evidence of a crime, however, there was little officers could do. The Retzes called Animal Control, which could only haul away the bodies. The couples decided that if another dead peacock turned up, they’d split the $450 cost of a private necropsy. They got their specimen three weeks later, on June 17, 2012, when someone reported a dead male in front of 80 Buckskin Lane, a few houses away from a major horse trail at the end of the street. The next day two carcasses were found in front of homes nearby, at 83 Buckskin and 75 Buckskin. The day after that, a bird’s body was retrieved at 88 Buckskin. On July 2 and 3, two more birds were found beside two of the same homes. By the end of August, 17 birds had been found dead in the Lanes, almost all of them within a couple hundred yards of one another. Several corpses were assessed at a lab in San Bernardino County. The cause of some of the deaths was indeterminable, but a few showed signs of being shot.

In the weeks that followed, 17 more dead peacocks were discovered in the Lanes. And the number grew. People gossiped around dining room tables and on horse rides; they had their suspicions but no proof of a killer. So the Retzes called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles. The SPCA is a nonprofit, not a law enforcement agency, but some of its staffers have been trained and sworn in as California peace officers. They carry firearms and wear policelike uniforms and badges. Most important, they’re tasked with bringing prosecutable animal cruelty cases to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office.

The investigation was assigned to Cesar Perea, who’d been a police officer and sheriff’s deputy in San Diego, and who’d also been a supervisor at an equestrian facility in Ventura County. “All the work I’ve ever done has either been managing animals or directly in law enforcement,” Perea told me, standing by his white SPCA-issued pickup truck at the end of Buckskin Lane one scorching afternoon this past summer. Wearing his navy blue uniform and wraparound shades, he looked every part the cop. Perea pulled a large plastic file box from the front seat and plopped it down on the tailgate. Since the killings started in 2012, he told me, 63 birds have died “suspiciously” in the Lanes, mostly within sight of where we stood but also on different parts of Buckskin and at the end of Dapplegray.

Perea agreed to let me see some of the paperwork, under the condition that I leave out details that could compromise his investigation. According to his documents, at least 14 of the peacocks were shot with pellets or BBs, which, when lodged in a bird’s intestines, cause what is likely a protracted and painful death brought on by organ failure. One peahen had been killed with a bow and arrow. A male found in the Gliksmans’ backyard died of a shotgun wound. Another’s head had been bludgeoned with a club or bat. Perea went to his glove compartment and returned holding a bolt, essentially an oversize metal dart that’s as thick as a smartphone stylus and discharged from a miniature crossbow. It had been sunk into a peacock’s back. “This is a pretty violent act,” he said. “They’re walking right up to the bird, standing over it, and shooting into it.”

Several birds were killed after being hit by cars. Perea said the deaths were too frequent and too geographically concentrated to represent a series of random accidents. What’s more, he pointed out, it’s tough to unintentionally mow down a large electric blue bird in a neighborhood where children and horses roam the streets and speeding is a major no-no. While peafowl enjoy a certain entitlement to the Lanes, they’re quick to run, hop, or fly out of harm’s way, except in the case where their reflexes have been slowed by poison; a lot of the birds Perea and I were discussing had tested positive for toxic chemicals. I asked him, and many residents, whether the birds could have inadvertently eaten pesticides or rodenticides, but everyone seemed to agree that the home owners in the Lanes tend not to use the deadly substances for fear of poisoning their pets, livestock, or, for that matter, themselves.

After Perea explained at a home owners meeting that killing the birds was a felony, punishable by up to three years in jail and a $20,000 fine, the killings slowly waned. Some neighbors have noted that three avowed peafowl haters sold their homes in the wake of Perea’s warning. While three dozen birds had died in 2012, 18 were reported dead in 2013, and 2014 saw almost no deaths.

Most residents I spoke to believe that at least one peacock killer still lives in the Lanes. So does Perea. He’s used surveillance cameras to track the comings and goings of three suspects and had a search warrant drawn up for one of them; if he can establish probable cause, he’ll be able to get a judge’s signature. In the summer of 2014, Perea thought he might have what he needed when a resident of a nearby neighborhood in Rolling Hills Estates, called Westfield, witnessed a peacock shooting. According to the caller, a white male in his fifties or sixties pulled his silver Mercedes to the side of Eastvale Road, lowered his window, and fired an air pistol at a peacock, killing it. (The witness didn’t get the license plate number but provided a good enough facial description for a police sketch that was widely circulated.) Perea’s three Dapplegray Lanes suspects either drove cars that didn’t match the description or had alibis, so he and his small team performed “knock-and-talks” with the four Mercedes owners on Eastvale Road. All were white, male, and middle-aged, but nobody confessed or slipped up. “Everyone we talked to was very cooperative,” he said. “I think three of them were lawyers.”

Not long after meeting Perea, I went to a home whose backyard looks onto a horse trail where peafowl congregate. I was following up on an anecdote I’d heard in which a man who lived there had allegedly been spotted a few years ago shooting a peacock from his second-story window. The woman who answered the door invited me in on the condition that I didn’t print her name or reveal the neighborhood where she lives. The mere mention of peacocks irritated her. “I can’t entertain or have a meal on my patio,” she said, airing her grievances for several minutes. Asked whether she tried to run the birds off her property, she replied without so much as a pause. “We used to have BB gun practice,” she said. “But we found out it’s a felony, so now my husband uses a slingshot.” It was the end of mating season, and the woman told me she’d recently found a nest with eggs in her yard.

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

She shot me a malevolent smile. “Squish,” she said. “Get it?”

While cities such as Rancho Palos Verdes hire Mike Maxcy to trap and relocate the birds, Dapplegray Lanes does not.
While cities such as Rancho Palos Verdes hire Mike Maxcy to trap and relocate the birds, Dapplegray Lanes does not.

Photograph by Gregg Segal

Peafowl courtship is one of nature’s more peculiar rituals. If you hang around the Lanes between spring and summer, you’re guaranteed to witness the spectacle of a male trying to seduce a hen. It begins with the peacock standing nearly still, even if it’s in the middle of the street, with the hen—or hens—of his affection nearby. Raising his train, he exposes two opposing fans of brown tail feathers beneath it and shakes them in every possible direction to call attention to his nether region, which, judging by his self-assured posture, he believes is irresistible. Then he spreads his wings, displaying a constellation of blue and green feathers. Ever so slowly the bird oscillates in order to be revered from multiple angles; he’s as dignified as Lord Grantham in a dinner jacket yet as lurid as Rick James in a Super Freak cape. If a peahen is interested—most seem to ignore the show—she’ll eventually submit, lying down and letting the male mount her from behind.

People often speculate that the peafowl make more babies when they sense danger. They don’t. It’s just that in bird-heavy neighborhoods like the Lanes, there are, well, more birds. In Rancho Palos Verdes, you can drive all day and spot nary a peafowl, yet even those residents have grown tired of the animals. “I quite frankly would like to see a program by the city where we go ahead and take out as much of the population as we can by trapping and relocation,” Anthony Misetich, an RPV city councilman, was quoted as saying in the Daily Breeze newspaper in late 2014. “I think our citizens have put up with this for long enough.”

In September the city called on Mike Maxcy, who is a curator at the raptor center at the Los Angeles Zoo and as a side business occasionally traps and relocates birds. I’d spent an afternoon with him in La Cañada Flintridge this past June. He was checking on a 2002 job there, for which he’d removed 30 birds (also thought to be descendants of the original Lucky Baldwin peafowl), reducing the population to approximately 12. In 2009, he’d trapped 72 birds in RPV, but his latest project there called for the removal of 150. Peachicks require the oversight of their mothers to survive. Because Maxcy was hired to humanely thin the mature population, not to prevent eggs from hatching or chicks from becoming adults, he had until spring to finish the job before mating season started again.

One hundred-fifty RPV residents offered their properties as trapping sites. A couple of weeks after the end of the mating season, Maxcy parked his truck in the driveway of a house near the bluffs of Lunada Bay so that he and his assistant could assemble a trap. Consisting of chain-link fence panels, each side of the pen measured ten feet wide by six feet tall, with a door on one side and peafowl-size openings on the adjacent sides. He rigged a flexible mesh tunnel that led from the holes into the cage. “I’ll put some birdseed and a bucket of water inside the cage to attract them,” said Maxcy, a friendly 50-year-old with a bald head that he shields from the sun under a baseball cap. “They enter through the hole in the fence and follow the mesh tunnel.” When they exit the tunnel, they jump over a short mesh fence to get to the food. A ceiling of netting prevents the birds from escaping. The system, Maxcy said, works like a lobster trap: “They find their way in, but they typically don’t find their way out.”

The City of Rancho Palos Verdes pays him $175 for each bird he traps and relocates; no birds means no money. “I’m not exactly getting rich off of this work,” said Maxcy. “I just do it because I like the animals, and I want them to be in a place where they’re fully welcome.” He said he never sells the birds; instead he takes them to people with properties—almost all of them in rural or semirural parts of Southern California—that he has screened and approved before he commences trapping. (A woman with 200 acres in Moorpark agreed to receive up to 35 of them, while someone with an avocado ranch in Santa Paula will take at least 30.)

As Maxcy finished installing the trap—it took less than an hour—the owners of the house emerged to receive instructions. They were concerned about the birds being stuck in the cage for too long. “The minute you see a bird in there, you call me or my partner or the city,” Maxcy said, handing the couple his business card and a bag of bird feed. “We’ll be here within 24 hours. All you have to do is make sure they have water and food.”

Maxcy and his assistant had three more stops to make in RPV that day, and they would be back dozens more times in the coming months. As he pulled away, Maxcy called out from his open window. “Over there, on the lawn,” he said, pointing to a medium-size peacock. “Maybe that’ll be our first one.” Six weeks later he’d caught 8 birds in that particular trap. By Thanksgiving he’d caught a total of 75 in Rancho Palos Verdes; he had 75 more to go.

A.J. Poulin
A.J. Poulin

Photograph by Gregg Segal

The peacock opponents of Dapplegray Lanes won’t be hiring trappers anytime soon. Under pressure from residents, city officials long ago declared the neighborhood a safe haven for the birds. Nobody in the Lanes can catch a peafowl, no matter how humanely, even on private property, a fact that exasperates A.J. Poulin. Equal parts brash and gregarious, he lives halfway down Buckskin Lane. Poulin is 50 but could pass for 40 when he’s lounging in flip-flops and cargo shorts. He grew up in Maine, traveled the world as a model, and relocated to L.A. in the mid-’90s, when he was a sitcom writer. A software salesman today, he moved to PV with his wife and two kids almost a decade ago for the same reason everyone else did: to experience country living while remaining close to the city. He calls the neighborhood “Mayberry with Money.”

It doesn’t take much to get Poulin on a tear about peafowl. He believes the population has run amok and they’re too great a burden on an otherwise idyllic trio of streets. At night, rather than enjoying the ocean breeze, he has to shut his double-pane windows and put on a white noise machine. The peacocks start their racket so early, he said, they wake up the roosters.

When I arrived at his home on a Sunday, there were three males on his back deck and two more on the lawn as his kids bounced on a trampoline by the barn that is home to three horses. He’d have the birds removed if he could and pointed out that not only Rancho Palos Verdes, but also Palos Verdes Estates and Rolling Hills underwrite the humane trapping and relocation of peafowl. Even Rolling Hills Estates, the city in which the Lanes is located, permits its 20 other neighborhoods to catch and move the birds at the expense of its separate home owners associations.

Rolling Hills Estates city manager Andy Clark says that only a handful of residents in the city have applied for permits in the past five years and that all attempts to catch the birds were unsuccessful. But that’s not quite how Poulin sees it. Most neighborhoods in Palos Verdes manage their peafowl population in a reasonable way, he said, but residents in the Lanes are smitten: “Here people coddle the eggs. They buy incubators. They feed them cat food. They let them in their homes!” His good friend and neighbor Emily Power, for example, lets a peacock she’s named Joe into her house (he’s never pooped inside, she insists), and a woman I visited on Sorrel Lane turned her spare shower into an incubator.

Then there’s Cat Spydell. Growing up about a mile away, in the Ranchview neighborhood, she would ride horses through the canyons. After a stint in Mendocino County, she returned in 1997 to raise her two children in the midcentury house she grew up in. Now in her early fifties, she divides her time between writing young adult fantasy books and tending to an assortment of adopted backyard animals: three pygmy goats, a potbellied pig, a tortoise, a chicken, a dove, a parakeet, three cats, and Drinian, a 135-pound white Colorado Mountain Dog. She also has a peacock named Radagast, after a J.R.R. Tolkien character. “Living with Rad is like being around a cross between a toddler and a pterodactyl,” she told me. “It’s made life very interesting!”

Sitting in her yard, Spydell surveyed the menagerie. “I’ve been an animal lover all my life,” she said, keeping one eye on the tortoise as it craned its neck for a view of my ankle. “You know those people who adopt random animals—like dehydrated baby hawks and hedgehogs and hermit crabs—in need of help? I’m that person.” Drinian and the chicken were napping in a sandbox surrounded by raised flower beds while Radagast paced in a large homemade pen. Rad was a tiny peachick when a resident of the Lanes contacted Spydell, saying the bird had been found motherless. “That’s usually how it happens,” she said. “I was home, minding my own business, when I got a phone call.” She knew that motherless peachicks are difficult to keep alive, but she was up for the challenge. For the last year and a half she’s been raising Rad, a task that initially involved hand-feeding, sometimes with an eyedropper. Along the way, Rad suffered from a fever that caused irreparable damage to his nervous system. “He has a weird twitch,” said Spydell. “It’s not easy to notice, but I do. He’s not good at flying. He’s a special-needs peacock.” Since adopting Rad, Spydell has spent only three nights away from him, each of which caused him—and Spydell’s kids, who bird-sit—much anxiety.

Spydell takes Rad everywhere—on road trips, to see live music, and to schools and libraries, where she does peacock show-and-tell for kids and adults. She usually drives an old Infiniti, but Rad looks best in her red 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible with a ragtop she never puts down. She rides with Rad only on cooler days like this one. We were joined by Spydell’s friend, a local photographer named Ivy Faulkner, and a local children’s book author named Mary Jo Hazard, whose titles include The Peacocks of Palos Verdes and Palo’s World: Adventures of a Palos Verdes Peacock.

Cat Spydell grew up in Rolling Hills Estates. She raised Radagast from when he was a motherless peachick. Her dog, Drinian, is just along for the ride
Cat Spydell grew up in Rolling Hills Estates. She raised Radagast from when he was a motherless peachick. Her dog, Drinian, is just along for the ride

Photograph by Gregg Segal

Wearing a leather welder’s glove (peacocks have sharp claws), Spydell carried Radagast to the Caddy. Hazard and Faulkner sat in the back. With Rad between Spydell and me on the front bench seat, we glided around the streets of Palos Verdes Peninsula, windows down. “He’s used to having the whole passenger seat and sitting facing me,” Spydell said as the bird tried to lie down. “His feathers have gotten so long that it’s hard for him to sit facing forward.” Once we turned west onto Hawthorne Boulevard and motored into Rancho Palos Verdes, Rad seemed to have adjusted to sharing the front seat with another passenger, his train extending across my lap. The urine he released barely missed me, pooling on the seat as we approached Terranea Resort, the cliffside destination that occupies the former site of Marineland. As we rounded Portuguese Bend, passing the turnoff to the Vanderlip estate, a caustic stench filled the car. Scooching away from Rad’s backside, I spotted the muddy stool next to me; it was smaller than it smelled. “Sorry about that,” Spydell said, ripping a baby wipe out of a plastic packet and cleaning up the mess. “You get used to it after a while. But that was a smelly one.”

As we drove back up Palos Verdes Drive North, Radagast oriented himself so that his disproportionately tiny bird skull was perfectly lined up with the medallion on the hood of the Caddy. Driving past Eastvale Road, where the white man in the Mercedes had been seen shooting at a peacock, Spydell told me that a friend of hers is dedicated to finding the culprit. “Someone out there knows who did it. It’ll all come out eventually, with time.”

 

A.J. Poulin isn’t so sure that anyone will ever be caught, even with Cesar Perea working the cases. Walking through the kitchen of his home, Poulin fished the keys to his black 1990 BMW convertible from his pocket to give his own tour of the area. Inching along in the car, stopping to chat with neighbors, he told me that most people like, or at least tolerate, the peafowl. “They’re beautiful birds,” he said. “When their feathers are open and the sun hits—I can see why NBC made it their logo.” The trouble, he said, is that a vocal minority of “crazy peacock people” and predominantly childless “feeders” has thwarted a reasonable conversation about mitigation. “There are so many more productive things they could do with this loving gene that they have,” he said. “They should be spending time with their sons and daughters, at a baseball game or watching a movie, eating popcorn.” Halfway down Sorrel Lane, he stopped the Bimmer next to three peacocks. One of the birds approached the passenger door, tilting its head at me like the RCA Victor dog, the antennae-like feathers on its head bobbing gently. “They look at their reflection in the paint, and they think it’s another male,” Poulin explained. “They get pissed, so they start poking at it. They’ll chip the paint!” Minutes later, on Buckskin, a neighbor pulled up in a late-model luxury sedan and said the same thing, adding that the netting on his vegetable garden is “100 percent there to avoid peacocks.” Some people have gone so far as to cut down their trees to prevent the birds from roosting.

In a neighborhood this small, no one wants enemies. Few want to go on the record about their beef with peacocks, so Poulin has assumed the role of their de facto spokesman. He took the mantle at a series of Peafowl Committee meetings that were held in 2012 and 2013. “When the idea of trapping came up, the peacock people said, ‘You can’t trap any animal, ever, for any reason because it’s inhumane, it creates stress and scares them,’ ” Poulin recounted with a balance of frustration and good humor. “And I said, ‘The horse in my backyard gets scared when the wind blows and the branch above him shakes. It’s OK for animals to be afraid once in a while. Just like when you’re driving down the freeway, being afraid gives you the quick instinct to avoid an accident.’ Somehow that led to them saying, ‘People and animals are the same because they both have souls.’ To which I said, ‘You don’t even know if I have a soul! How do you know if an animal has a soul?’ And they said, ‘All animals are divine beings. Of course they have souls.’ And I’m like, ‘Prove it!’ And they’re like, ‘If it has a heartbeat, it has a soul.’ To which I would say, ‘I don’t even know what the fuck we’re talking about right now!’ ”

For his latest job on the peninsula, Maxcy was contracted to remove 150 birds; he was halfway there when this photo was taken on November 16. Some will wind up in Santa Paula and Moorpark
For his latest job on the peninsula, Maxcy was contracted to remove 150 birds; he was halfway there when this photo was taken on November 16. Some will wind up in Santa Paula and Moorpark

Photograph by Gregg Segal

After counting several dozen peafowl with me, Poulin cruised back to his house. As we walked up the driveway, a boy—one of his sons—emerged from the garage, wielding an air rifle. “Where’s your safety gear, Hunter?” said Poulin. “You’ve got to wear your safety gear.” Earlier in the day I’d asked whether neighborhood kids could be offing peacocks, but Poulin, like almost every other Lanes resident I’d asked, had rejected the idea. Once his son put on protective goggles, he trotted off. Poulin and I sipped Lagunitas IPAs by the pool and discussed whether cows in India are more likely to have souls than American ones. “The cows I’ve hung out with?” he said. “Nothing there.”

Later that week I saw Poulin in front of his house. “I’ve been meaning to call you,” he said. He pointed to a tree on a neighbor’s property and said that the day after I left, a peacock fell to the ground with a thud.

“Do you think someone killed it?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It was a young peachick that a hawk dropped. I thought it was dead, but two minutes later it started moving. A minute after that, it got up and found its mom—tough bugger.”

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