Peafowl in Our Lives

(First published in Gamebird Gazette Vol. 50 No. 4, August 2003)

I got my first pair of peafowl by accident. In 1999, soon after my husband and I moved to 21 acres of pasture and forest land near the central Oregon coast, relatives of our 88-year-old neighbor Lester (who still raises cattle) brought him a pair of young peafowl they could no longer keep. It seems the neighborhood kids were shooting BB's at them; the female was wounded in the neck, but had recovered. Lester didn't really want the birds, but he was too nice to say no. However, as soon as the peafowl were let loose, Lester's dog chased them, and they flew into the tall fir trees bordering the river that separates our two properties. Apparently the pair wandered up and down river for two weeks (I later heard stories of them stealing chicken feed, etc.). One morning they appeared on our deck. We fed them some bread, and that was it; they wouldn't leave!

I called Lester and told him his peafowl were here, if he wanted to come get them. Lester said, "They're yours!" And that's how we got our first peafowl. They were one or two years old; the male didn't have any long green tail feathers yet, just stiff black feathers like a turkey's tail. Lester didn't know their names (not that they respond to names, anyway), so I called them Melvin and Mindy, after two characters in our favorite movie, "Tremors." Melvin was an appropriate name, since the peacock eventually became more bratty and unpleasant than his movie namesake. However, at first their behavior was polite and curious: hesitant, yet craning their necks, wide-eyed, looking at and investigating everything.

Melvin and Mindy were already free, and stayed close of their own accord. Our house is set far back from the road, but there were times when the peafowl got the wanderlust, and neighbors reported seeing them on the road, usually at dawn. They were lucky not to get run over. I would search for them to herd them back home. If I couldn't find them, lunch time would usually bring them back on their own.

I tried looking up peafowl on the Internet, but didn't find much about keeping them. (Didn't know about Gamebird Gazette then!) But one site did say they should eat turkey food, so we went and bought a big bag. It was their least favorite food! Well, next to calf feed (oats and corn), which is all Lester had on hand; they hated that! Lester said their former owners fed them macaroni, which seemed odd to me; was I supposed to cook it first? I bought some small elbow macaroni and fed it to them uncooked; they loved it!

Over time, I've tried many foods on my peafowl, and talked to several people about what to feed them. Apparently, they will eat almost anything, from goat food pellets the size of charcoal briquettes (which, incredibly, they can swallow whole!) to peanut butter. In addition to the bugs, plants, and flowers they find on their own, I give mine: macaroni, black oil sunflower seeds, millet, bread, turkey pellets, peanuts, raisins, grapes, blueberries, and wild berries. They like to eat spiders, moths, and grasshoppers and LOVE flying termites, but rarely eat ants. They also like grass, dandelion leaves and flowers, and in winter, dried alfalfa leaves.

In wet weather it's important to keep their food dry (turkey food melts; other stuff molds) and at all times prevent other animals from stealing it (mice, squirrels, blue jays, etc.). Over their first summer with us, I slowly placed their food closer and closer to our back porch and covered patio (the only place the rain doesn't reach). I watched while they ate, and swept up the leftovers when they were done. However, if you have a dry place away from the house, I would suggest using that instead. Where peafowl are, is where they poop, and they may challenge you when you enter their territory. This is a bit inconvenient when I want to use the patio or back door! I eventually won their trust enough so that they will take grapes from my fingers. No petting, though: they hate being touched, and will peck or perhaps jump at you if you get too familiar.

In the May-to-October mating season, I provide oyster shell, so the peahens will have enough calcium to lay eggs. The peafowl get grit from our gravel driveway, and charcoal (for upset tummies) from our burn pile. They take dirt baths either in the burn pile ashes or mole hills. I've never seen them take a water bath.

At first, I didn't think to provide drinking water; after all, the river is only 75 feet from the house. But when I saw them drinking from the downspouts, I tried putting out an old dog dish with water in it. They took to this right away, and both we and visitors get a kick out of watching them drink from a bowl!

Winter was coming on, with fierce wind storms, and we didn't know if we should let the peafowl continue to roost 50 feet up in the trees, or whether we should keep them indoors. We actually did manage to herd them into the garage a few times, but the urge to take to the trees at night is irresistible to them. They weathered some pretty bad storms with few problems. Once, I saw Melvin slip and fall out of the tree; he seemed embarrassed and went into the garage willingly that night. Mindy won't go in the garage any more (I think the noise of the rain and wind on the metal roof frightens her more than being out in the storm), and she has spent a night in the bushes or on the deck now and then. She won't fly if anything is close, like a deer or cow, and the window of opportunity at dusk doesn't last long. They can't see at night, and won't fly unless severely threatened. Just as well; their night landings in the trees are pretty bad; they're probably safer on the ground for one night.

Just this spring, thanks to my very first issue of Gamebird Gazette, I acquired a second pair of peafowl (at no cost) from a lady who had tired of them after 14 years. This was a friend of someone I'd contacted who had run an ad in the Gazette. The peafowl, which I named Miguel and Missy, had been kept in a former greenhouse that was about 8'x10' and fed horse food and table scraps. I agreed to take them only if they were "nice." Miguel is indeed nice, but very timid. A friend remarked that since he is at least 14 and full-grown, his personality probably won't change. But every strange sound sends Miguel running and shrieking. He is slowly getting used to normal sounds (my hair dryer, the garage door opener).

All my peafowl like to stick close to buildings. I assume they feel safer from predators. Plus, they seem to be one of the few animals that know enough to get in out of the rain. Perhaps they are attracted to their reflection in the windows, too: they are very vain! Do not, however, let them see themselves in a mirror. I did this as an "intelligence test" with Melvin and it backfired: holding the 16"x20" mirror in front of my legs, he apparently decided I was a very strange-looking peacock, and eventually started attacking me. His spurs were no joke: I have the scalp wounds to prove it. Melvin is now in peacock heaven (or hell, if there's any justice). I also made the mirror mistake with Miguel; he started attacking his reflection in the sliding-glass doors, put holes in the screens, and bloodied his knees. I had to put cardboard between the screen and the glass so he couldn't see himself.

Peafowl can be trained, up to a point. My husband jokes that it's often hard to tell who's training who! Do respect them, explain things to them (they occasionally seem to understand), and don't tease them: they have their ways of getting revenge, and they can hold a grudge. Make sure they respect you; be tops in the pecking order. Don't let them circle and sneak up behind you; this is a prelude to an attack. To discourage naughtiness, either squirt them with the hose (they hate water) or throw something at them that won't cause injury (work glove, hat, tennis ball, etc.). Poking or swinging at them with a broom is a bad idea: it just trains them to attack with their feet, wings, and the male's spurs. Besides, they are so quick I could never connect, anyway. However, thrown objects have them buffaloed, just like reflections. They just don't GET it!

So far I have seen my peafowl evade predators like coyotes, bobcats, hawks, and raccoons. They have an odd way of doing it however: honking loudly, they walk TOWARD the predator, as if to say, "You can't get us; we know you're there." Running and flying are last resorts, if the brazen approach fails.

Peafowl make a number of different noises or calls; I think I know the meaning of most now. For instance:

SOUND

Tarzan yell
Honk
Hee-Haw
Squawk
Wha?
Hawoo
Moan
Hee Be Bee
Growl
Click
Trill?
Squeak

VOLUME

Loud
Loud
Loud
Loud
Medium
Medium
Medium
Medium
Soft
Soft
Soft
Soft

MEANING

Male alarm call or seeking others
Sudden fear; predator on the ground
Female alarm or seeking others
Female challenge to hidden predator
Male mild fear; unfamiliarity
Male mating attempt
Mother or baby is "lost" (out of sight)
Babies are sleepy
Predator soaring in the sky
Question; surprise; location in darkness
Female to female challenge: wanna fight?
Mother pointing out food for babies

DESCRIPTION

Sounds like "Heelllllp" or "OhWow"
Similar to a goose
Sounds like "Hee Haw" or "YooHoo"
Sounds like "Aaaaak!"

Tail spread, chasing female
Sounds like repeated, hoarse "Woe!"
Repeated until hen tucks chicks under her wings
Head tilted, looking up with one eye
Sound between click and cluck
Trilling sound on a rising note
Sort of a kissing sound
I spent a lot of time learning to imitate peafowl sounds. But it was probably a bad idea; you really don't want them to think you're a rival (male or female), so you shouldn't sound like a peafowl, or let your image merge with a peafowl's (such as standing on the other side of a window in which they can see you and their own reflection overlaid). Peafowl are big and are capable of causing some injury. I shudder to think what might have happened if Melvin had connected with an eye or ear instead of my scalp (I was bent over, pulling weeds). Miguel moves away if I walk towards him, but Mindy stands her ground and challenges me. So I detour around her. I wouldn't trust peafowl around babies or young pets. Males are particularly aggressive during mating season (May-Oct.), especially while spreading their tails.

But don't get the wrong idea; peacocks are entertaining, too. Melvin and Mindy used to play "Ring-around- the-Rosie," chasing each other around and around a small bush, ducking inside to hide and say "Boo!" as the other came around. Other times one would reverse direction and they'd collide. Hilarious!

Once Melvin and Mindy found a robin's nest in a bush. They were very curious; the robin was very protective. Over and over, they tried to get a close look at the nest; over and over, the robin would dive-bomb them and send them scurrying. Duh!

Then there's the time Lester's cows came over to visit. Mindy was used to bossing around the deer; she'd jump at them with her claws and they'd dodge. They learned to give her a wide berth. She thought she'd do the same with the cows. But the yearlings still had some playfulness in them; as Mindy snuck up behind them, they noticed her and took interest; before Mindy knew it, THEY were chasing HER! Around and around the house the calves chased the peahen, kicking up their heels and having a lot of fun. Mindy was running full tilt; the calves were just loping. Finally, Mindy changed course and got out of sight of the calves; game over. Side-splittingly funny!

I haven't had Miguel and Missy long enough to have many funny stories yet; plus, they are older and more dignified than Melvin and Mindy were when we got them. But Miguel was running all over the yard yesterday, for no apparent reason, as though banshees were chasing him. High spirits, or something I couldn't see? Don't know.

Mindy .vs. Spike
Mindy .vs. Spike

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