My First Peachicks

(First published in Gamebird Gazette in two parts, Vol. 51, No. 3 and 4, August and November 2004)

I've had Mindy, a free-ranging peahen, since 1999. Her first mate died in 2000, and she seemed lonely. After subscribing to Game Bird Gazette in early 2003, and thanks to the want ads therein, I found a pair of mature peafowl nearby that I could get for free, to keep her company. They had been caged for 14 years. I got them in early June; luckily, they had already been trussed up in burlap bags, with their legs tied. We named them Missy and Miguel. I kept them in the garage the first night, then opened the overhead door the next morning, wondering if they'd immediately fly or run away. Thankfully, that didn't happen. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and they slowly walked around the freshly-mown pasture. Miguel tried to follow the driveway towards the road a few times the first day, but I headed him off each time, and after that he settled in to stay.

Mindy, to my surprise, didn't act very happy to see these new companions, and set about establishing herself as the boss. She growled and pecked and jumped at the newcomers. Miguel, being timid, quickly found himself at the bottom of the pecking order!

My first hurdle, convincing them to stay, was accomplished pretty easily through lecturing, vigilance and "herding." (Yes, I talked to them a lot.) The second hurdle, getting them to eat and drink, was easy. But the third hurdle, getting them to fly to safety in the trees at night, turned out to be insurmountable.

The first evening, Miguel jumped to the tip of a low fir branch, which sagged to the ground under his weight, dumping him off. Not a good start. Missy flew to the metal roof of the garage. I didn't think that was a suitable place, so I urged her off. In hindsight, that was probably a mistake; at least she was high enough to be safe. They seemed to have lost their instinct to roost high in the trees at night. I pleaded with Mindy to "show them the ropes," but she was in no mood to help, and they failed to watch and learn from her. I tried to chase them into the trees, but all they did was run in circles, not fly. Miguel chose to roost on a 4-foot tall wood pile, and Missy joined him. Not high enough by a long shot; Miguel's tail reached the ground. It had gotten too dark to do anything else, so I let them be. Another mistake. But how does an earthbound human teach a bird to fly?

Peafowl are creatures of habit; they will not change their minds or routine unless given a very good reason. So, after the first few nights on the wood pile, it was impossible for me to convince the new pair to roost anywhere else. Maybe I should have borrowed somebody's dog to chase them (they ran too fast for me to be a threat worth flying away from).

During July, both Mindy and Missy began sitting on eggs. I had seen Miguel mating with each of them, and I hoped for babies. Miguel seemed a bit miffed that he was suddenly left alone, and he seemed bored. He really didn't know what to do with his freedom. Both peahens made sure Miguel didn't see them return to their nests after eating, especially Missy, who nested 100 yards from the house, hidden in tall grass. I didn't try to find Missy's nest, because I was afraid that predators might follow my trail and find her. Prescient, unfortunately.

Missy came to the house to eat and drink only every 5 days at first; then every 3 days; and then every other day. I worried about her the whole time, thinking each long absence meant she was dead. Mindy, as usual, was close by, and came out daily. I found her nest while watering the plants, so I was able to check on her often.

Missy's eggs were due to hatch at the end of July; Mindy's about a week later. Breaking her most recent pattern, Missy hadn't shown up for food or water for several days. On July 28 I went looking for her and found her leading 4 chicks through the tall grass! But I should have taken a net with me; the chicks were several days old, too big and too fast already for me to catch all 4 and hold them in my hands. I didn't know then, being new at this, but I should have caught one chick and let its plaintive peeping draw Missy and her brood where I wanted them to go. Instead, I tried to "herd" them, but it went awry: they veered into the berry canes, where I couldn't reach them, nor persuade them to come out. I brought out food and water: one pie tin of turkey feed, millet, and sunflower seed; the other with water and a layer of small stones, to keep the chicks from getting wet and chilled, as suggested in the Gazette. I was pleased to see them all eat and drink.

Hoping to catch them later, I set up an enclosure in the garage, with an old bed pad on the concrete floor. I knew Missy and her babies would be in grave danger until the chicks could fly. But all I succeeded in doing that evening was chasing them from one end of the berry patch to the other. That was the last time I saw them.

Miguel was still roosting on the wood pile. On August 3rd, something happened at 4 AM: I heard a squawk, wings beating, a short "Who?" call and some rustling in the bushes. Then all quiet. Hours later, I found what was left of Miguel. Feathers everywhere; meat bees on his carcass. Probably a coyote. Poor Miguel! At least he had fathered the next generation. He had enjoyed exactly 2 months of freedom.

After Miguel's death, I had a bad feeling about Missy and her 4 chicks. Hadn't seen them for a week, and the food and water I put near the berry patch hadn't been touched in days. I looked for them, in vain.

Amazingly, Mindy was still OK, sitting on her nest, only yards from Miguel's carcass (which I removed). I feared the coyote would come back to finish Miguel's remains and then find Mindy. Her eggs were due to hatch soon. I didn't know what to do! Let her sit on the nest to hatch the eggs, and risk the coyote finding her? Take away her eggs and risk their not hatching? Were the eggs even fertile?

I decided to intervene. I netted Mindy on her nest, and managed not to harm the eggs while struggling with her. I shut Mindy in the garage, then took the eggs in the house. To my surprise, 2 of the 3 eggs started peeping! One of them even moved, rocking a bit on the countertop, and it had a tiny round hole where the chick had started to crack the shell.

I set up a makeshift incubator: a smallish cardboard box, light bulb, paper towels on the bottom, wet sponges for humidity (placed on plastic jar lids to keep from soaking the box), and a cheap combination thermometer and humidity meter from Wal-Mart. I put the eggs in the box and closed the lid (leaving a hole around the light bulb). I stayed up until 1 AM monitoring the incubator; it was pretty stable at about 95F and 65% humidity, which I had read were about right for peafowl eggs. I kept turning the eggs, since the side closer to the light got much warmer than the other side. Later, I read in the Gazette that you're NOT supposed to turn the eggs during the last few days before hatching. Who knew?

Sure enough, at 2 AM that night, the coyote returned and howled for 15 minutes. No doubt it was angry that its "leftovers" from Miguel were gone, and Mindy, too. If I had been prepared, I could have shot or trapped the coyote. But I didn't learn until later that they ALWAYS return the next night. That's how you get 'em.

By 8 AM, the first egg had a crack half-way around the rounder end. By 9 AM, the chick had hatched. I put it in the enclosure inside the garage. The peachick's peeping drew Mindy into the enclosure, and she immediately sat down on the chick. Her mothering instinct was incredibly strong. I left food and water for her, even though she didn't seem interested in them.

The second peeping egg, still in the makeshift incubator, hadn't even started to crack by 11 PM that night. I re-moistened the sponges and went to bed. The second chick was completely hatched by 6 AM the next morning. The third egg never hatched, and turned out to be infertile.

When I took the second chick out to Mindy at 7 AM, I noticed that the first chick looked squashed, with one wing stuck straight out and one leg in a permanent high-kick over his head. He was trying to scoot around on his belly after his mother. I tried to fold his limbs normally, but they just returned to their weird positions again. I think Mindy sat on him too hard. Poor baby, he hadn't looked that way yesterday! I took him away and left the new chick. I used a Band-Aid to keep the bad leg folded up properly, and returned the bandaged chick to Mindy, who accepted him back. She ate some food, but drank no water. How can the broody females live for a month on dry food (and darned little of that) and no water? True, when on the nest they burn very few calories, just sitting still. But no water? Animals are amazing if you pay close enough attention.

My new-hatched peachicks were fuzzy, yellowish tan with some brown stripes down the neck, with darker tan, half-developed wing feathers, and no tail feathers at all. Their necks were short; eyes gray (rather than adult brown), legs and feet large in relation to the rest of their bodies. They looked more like chickens than peafowl! I had no idea what sex they were. I didn't expect to know for a long time, until they started growing their adult plumage. At least, that had been my experience with my pet Zebra Finches and Lady Gouldian Finches.

I gave the peachicks gender-neutral names: Terry and Leslie, which would work whether they turned out to be male or female. Terry (the eldest) was larger, darker, and bolder. Leslie was smaller, more yellowish, and timid. Neither peachick wanted to eat or drink yet; maybe walking needed to come first.

The second day, Leslie was AOK, and Terry's wing and leg looked better, but he had developed 2 crooked toes. He could run now, so the hip joint was better (took the Band-Aid off after 1 day), but his little toes just curled up and his foot slipped out from under him when he tried to stand still. I took him outside to give him exercise walking around, but it didn't seem to help much. So then I tried taping short bits of toothpicks to the crooked toes (like splints), and that immediately helped him stand and walk better. Amateur vet, that's me!

The third day, the toothpick splints had fallen off Terry's toes overnight, but only one toe was still crooked. Took both chicks outside (without Mindy, who I feared might disappear into the brush like Missy did) and they stayed very close to me as I walked around, stomping grasshoppers and feeding them to the chicks in my palm or with my fingers. The chicks are already fast runners, and learned very quickly that a grasshopper treat followed a stomp (luckily the grasshoppers were very small, just the right size for the peachicks to swallow whole).

Back in the garage enclosure, I sloshed the water dish in front of Terry, and this prompted him to drink from it for the first time. Leslie was not interested, however. I assumed they were living off leftover yolk in their stomachs for the first few days, but I had read in the Gazette that it was crucial to get them eating and drinking after 3 or 4 days. So far, Terry was right on schedule.

By the fourth day, Terry's last crooked toe had straightened all by itself. Last day for a free-range outing for the "kids." Mindy, still in the garage, could hear them peeping and got very upset about being separated from them; she squawked non-stop. The chicks were already so fast they were hard to catch! Also, they stayed so close to my feet that I was afraid I'd step on them.

For peachick food, I mixed turkey starter food with water to make a gruel, then added millet seeds (which the moisture softened), and served it to the chicks in a plastic jar-lid. With a little coaxing (tipping the lid to make the gruel slosh), the chicks began to eat this. Leslie drank from the food dish, too, for quite a few days, before she learned to drink from the water dish. Kept feeding the chicks wet gruel until they stopped eating it, then switched to dry starter food and seeds. But their favorite food by far was bugs. I was kept quite busy catching bugs for them for the rest of the summer! I also defrosted some blackberries from last year and offered them to Mindy and the chicks. Mindy liked berries, and made a sort of "kissing" sound, which told the chicks to eat what she was pointing at or holding with her beak. At first, the berries were bigger than the chick's heads, so they only pecked at them. When I separated individual berry-lettes for them, the chicks ate these.

Day 5: Terry jumped up on Mindy's back as she was lying on the floor! He did it several times. So CUTE!!! I was glad, too, because I wanted these peafowl to learn to go "up," unlike their poor father.

Day 6: I found what was left of Missy while mowing the pasture: just a few feathers scattered in the tall grass. No sign of her 4 chicks; they were probably swallowed whole. So I lost 6 out of 9 peafowl: a full-grown male and female, plus 4 chicks. It seemed a long shot that the last 2 chicks would ever make it to adulthood. But I was determined.

To keep the chicks safe from my feet, from hawks, and to prevent them from running off into the brush, I started putting them in an old 3' x 2' x 18" finch cage for their daily outings. Overprotective, perhaps.

Day 7: Terry jumped on a small table in the enclosure, stretched up his neck, and spread out his tail! It was SOOOOO darling, and funny, too: his tail feathers are only 1/2" long! Did this mean Terry was a male? Both sexes can fan their tails, but the females do it much less often.

Also, both chicks (and Mindy, too) were up on top of the 4' wall of their enclosure. I was concerned that if they escaped the enclosure, they'd be cut off from their food and water. Plus, they could get into trouble with all the stuff stored in the garage. If they were THIS precocious at only 1 week old, how would they be in 2 months?!? That's supposedly how long it takes for peachicks to start roosting off the ground.

Day 8: I spent hours catching little grasshoppers to feed the peachicks. I took my butterfly net into the pasture, and walked up and down the mowed rows, stirring up bugs as I went. I usually stomped the 'hoppers with my feet rather than catching them with the net. If the bugs were still too frisky, I'd pinch them to stun or kill them. I used the net mainly to store the bugs, until I had about 50, then I took them back to the garage and dumped them in with the peafowl. I found I had to keep Mindy from gobbling down all the bugs before the chicks could eat many. She got too excited when there was a huge pile of bugs in front of her; she remembered to share with the chicks if I tossed bugs to her one at a time. Mindy would bite the bug and keep nibbling at it until a chick grabbed it from her beak. But if the chicks were too slow, or too full, Mindy would go ahead and swallow the bug.

Day 12: Added a roof of chicken wire to the peafowl enclosure because all 3 were wandering around the garage floor today, outside their enclosure. I took a chance and let Mindy out of the garage while the peachicks were in their cage for their daily outing. Luckily, she followed the sound of her chicks peeping in the cage as I moved it to a spot with some shade, some sun, some grass, some dirt. After the outing, Mindy followed her chicks back inside the garage and the enclosure. I was a bit surprised she was such a devoted mother.

Day 14: The peachicks had fun taking dirt baths and sunbathing in their little cage outdoors. Terry HAD to be a male! He spread his tail, even vibrated it (like adults do), and tried to beat up on Leslie. All very grown-up male behaviors! Leslie was probably female; I hadn't seen her do any tail spreading, and Leslie's behavior was much more timid and needy, whereas Terry was already starting to act independent, not being as concerned nor whining like Leslie did if Mindy wandered away.

Day 16: I had wondered when the peachicks would develop a "topknot" like adult peacocks, and already I had my answer: right now! I could detect a tiny dark spot at the back of their heads where the topknot would be. The chicks also began growing feathers on their shoulders.

While the chicks were in their "outing cage" with me nearby, Mindy started clucking and staring at a spot under the cage. I asked her, "What? Did you find a snake?" (Had seen some around previously.) Sure enough, when I moved the cage, a snake was hiding in the grass underneath. Some sort of garter snake; harmless; about a foot long. I picked it up and showed it to the "kids," and it writhed, but the chicks weren't impressed. I let it go. A few minutes later, Mindy started making the same noise again, looking at the ground under the cage. I said, "What, another one?" And can you believe it, I'd put the cage on top of a 2nd snake in the grass! This one was more excitable, and darted between my feet as I moved the cage. I danced out of the way, which caused the snake to turn around and enter the cage. The chicks got excited then! The snake was afraid, too, and tried to bite one of the chicks in self-defense. However, the snake's head was only 1/2" long, and it had no fangs, so it didn't hurt the chick. Then the snake headed for the woods, where the other snake had gone. I hope the chicks learned a lesson.

Day 21: The peachicks' necks and legs were really looking longer, and their bodies seemed to double in size each week. Little feathers were just starting to replace the fuzz on their necks. They are still yellow and tan.

I was catching 100 to 200 grasshoppers a day for the chicks, and was sure they could've eaten more! Good thing they liked the millet and turkey starter food. They also ate a bit of blackberry fruit now and then, but preferred grapes that I cut into tiny pieces. They aren't too keen on flies or green stuff, however. And they got a bonus of flying termites for a bedtime snack...Yum! Mindy's favorite!

Day 27: The peachicks really went after bread crumbs and greens for the first time. Mindy had to encourage them by example on the dandelion greens and flowers. Typical kids, won't eat their vegetables...

Day 28: The peachicks had grown too big for the outing cage. So, with some misgivings, I opened the garage doors and allowed them to go outside unhindered. Thankfully, the peafowl did NOT immediately run off into the bushes. They first circled the detached garage, finding bugs and plants to eat, then two times around the house. Leslie was the first to catch a bug all by herself: a crane fly. The chicks weren't used to so much walking, so they stopped for a rest and a dirt bath on a shaded mole hill. Then they went back inside the garage. Hooray! Exactly what I wanted them to do: consider the garage to be a home and a safe haven. (It didn't hurt that their food and water was there, and I fed them bugs there, as well.)

Mindy had SO desired her chicks to be free to follow and learn from her, yet now she seemed at a loss regarding what to show them, or where to go. She was also nervous about the circling buzzards (a fixture here in the summer), so she stayed pretty close to the buildings. They decided to take turns sun bathing in the doorway and then moved into the shade inside the garage.

After several hours of watching them, I couldn't take the heat any more, so I went in the house and kept an eye on the peafowl through a window. As far as I could tell, they barely set foot outside the garage the whole time. But something had happened. When I went out to check on them, Leslie had a bloody gash along her jaw line from the base of her beak to the back of her head, and blood on her toes.

I felt terrible about leaving them on their own and letting Leslie get hurt. She acted OK, except she kept scratching at the wound, which explained at least the blood on one toe, but not on the other foot. I considered but rejected the idea of catching Leslie and trying to treat her wound; it would probably upset her and Mindy far more than the wound seemed to be bothering her, and I've read that young birds heal quickly. (She did, too, in only 3 days.)

So I went back to serious guard duty, but with the thought in mind that I should shut them up again as soon as possible. They were much more circumspect in their wanderings after Leslie was hurt, staying on the sidewalk by the garage and just going back and forth several times. Finally, I suggested to Mindy that she have some seed and water inside the garage, and she actually took my advice! (Are pets REALLY psychic, or was this just a coincidence?) I took the opportunity to shut all 3 doors (2 for cars, 1 for people).

Soon, I let the chicks spend all day outdoors with little supervision from me. Mindy, however, was constantly on guard duty. No more long, lazy summer naps for her! She posted herself on any object above ground level: stump, garbage can, wood pile, parked car.

Any time I brought out the butterfly net, the chicks came running, even if it was empty; which was a good way to lead them where I wanted them to go! Mindy would follow. They voluntarily returned to the garage at dusk. I shut them in and kept the light on until around 9 PM. Then I would coax them into settling for the night by imitating the "He Be Bee" call the chicks made when they burrowed under Mindy's feathers to sleep. They graduated from sleeping on the floor under Mindy's tail, to snuggling under her wings while lying on top of our (covered) little boat. It was both funny and cute to watch them jockey for position under Mindy after I turned off the lights (leaving only night lights). A head would poke up from under her wing, or a chick would pop out and back in again, unable to decide whether to face forward or backward.

Later, after observing Mindy peering up at the garage ceiling for several days, then finding them all in the rafters, I installed a curved branch for them to roost on. Even after moving up to the branch, the chicks still tried to snuggle under Mindy's wings until they just couldn't fit any more. They spent the winter nights sleeping in the garage, safe and dry. I opened the door during the day so they could go outside, but they ran back inside whenever it rained. Snow and hail were quite a novelty on New Year's Day; the young ones ate hailstones as if they were ice cream!

The chicks' sub-adult plumage grew in when they were 3 to 4 months old (both looked like adult females, only smaller, with green necks, gray backs, white bellies). Terry's neck slowly turned more and more blue. I was finally positive that Terry was male and Leslie, female, when Terry started growing dark belly feathers at age 7 months.

Day 192 (7 months, 3 days): Mindy and her young all flew into a tree at dusk for the first time. But they changed their minds and flew down before dark, to spend the night in the garage, as usual. However, I took this as a good sign that they would soon decide to spend the night in the trees, where they belong, now that spring is here.

Day 198: Accidentally shut the peacocks out of the garage so they had to sleep in the trees for the first time. They had been practicing all week, so they were ready, but needed a nudge to make the switch. They've been spending the night in the trees ever since. Also, by this time, Terry was an inch or two taller than his mother, while Leslie was still slightly smaller than Mindy. However, Terry showed no more sign of spurs at this age than Leslie (who, as a female, will never grow any).

And that ends the story of my first peachicks. Mindy's first babies were all grown up!

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