I’m walking behind my guide at Mayfield Park when I see the first peacock: a black-shouldered male. He is standing on the tree above me with his long green train dangling so that its tip is mere inches above my head. As I strain my neck and shield my eyes from the sun to watch him, I almost walk right into two more birds—Persian peahens, this time, which are gray with green necks. They are closer to me now than a pigeon or grackle would dare. I round a corner to find a Persian male on full display, his train fanned out into a royal semicircle (you can tell he’s a Persian, my guide tells me, by the checkered pattern on his shoulder). Next to him is a female who must be the intended target of this act of flirtation. Unfortunately, he’s made a basic error: his elaborate spread of colors is facing the wrong direction. The peahen pecks at the ground halfheartedly, oblivious to the male’s confused advances.
But it’s okay. There’s still plenty of time; mating season is just beginning.
Twenty or so peacocks roam Austin’s Mayfield Park and Preserve, a historic estate given to the City of Austin in 1971 by former owner Mary Mayfield Gutsch. The birds have been around since 1935, when friends gave Gutsch and her husband a pair of peacocks for Christmas. The city-run park is now a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, who stop by to stroll its wooded paths, attend weddings, pose for photos, or picnic on the lawn alongside the flamboyant birds. The park’s website boasts that “most of the peacocks at Mayfield Park are descendants of the original stock.” Recently, however, three newcomers have arrived, and they’re ruffling feathers.
In January, a month before the start of peacock mating season, someone abandoned three peacocks at the park: two males and a female. Dropping off a few birds at a haven for them may not seem like a big deal. But park volunteer Blake Tollett, the president of Mayfield Park Community Project and my tour guide for the day, disagrees.
“In my mind, it’s very rude and insensitive for you to come dumping full-grown birds and try to push them onto the flock,” Tollett says.
Tollett is serious and secretive when he describes the case of the anonymous dumping. He says that after the three new birds showed up, he received a frantic call from the primary peacock caretaker at Mayfield, a volunteer named Anne, who didn’t know how to handle three new birds. Not unlike with chickens, peacocks in an existing flock can bully or peck at newcomers. Anne and the other park volunteers worried for the safety of the new arrivals and worked to integrate them into the flock as best they could.
This proved difficult since the two new males were young and immature; they and the other newcomer largely stuck together and isolated from the rest of the flock. What’s more, one of the males was, according to Tollett, “a little off.” He screeched often and “freaked out” some of the human visitors.
Cindy Klemmer, the Austin Parks & Recreation Department employee who manages Mayfield, says that while folks do occasionally drop off peafowl and employees and volunteers “deal with them,” peacock donations are not generally accepted. Klemmer believes there are too many birds in the flock as it is. The cottage and lawn area where the birds congregate is small, and overcrowding is a concern.
Tollett isn’t as worried about the birds’ space to roam. He does fret, though, about the social dynamic of the flock when newcomers are introduced. It’s challenging to facilitate the adjustment of one peacock, let alone three. The timing of their arrival, just prior to mating season, makes this even more difficult, since peacock hormones are already running high. And until now, the Mayfield flock had an even gender distribution: about ten males and ten females. That matters because the newly arrived young males are much more aggressive in their mating habits, which means it’s possible they will displace their older counterparts and force them to leave the park. Introducing new peahens to a flock without proper care often leaves certain females on the outs, which is exactly what happened to the abandoned peahen. This shakes up the entire dynamic of mating season. For park visitors, it might mean hearing an uptick in ear-splitting screams from stressed-out peacocks.
All this fuss, according to Douglas Buffington, the author of Peacocks Only: A Survival Guide for Peacocks and manager of a 22,000-person Facebook group by the same name, was wholly unnecessary. Buffington says any number of Texas peacock enthusiasts would have been happy to take the three unwanted birds: “There’s a big demand for them.”
Buffington has kept peacocks for 48 years and has a flock of about eighty on his property in Silsbee, twenty miles north of Beaumont. He says it’s common for new peafowl parents to underestimate the amount of time, work, and money that goes into this species’ care, especially since many owners keep the animals in confined spaces, where they’re susceptible to disease. “To keep them healthy in pens is a problem because they keep reinfecting themselves,” Buffington said. “But if you go out where they can roam around a little bit, they stay a lot healthier.” That’s if their owners are careful to protect the flock from raccoons, coyotes, and other predators.
And that’s not even taking into account the noise. Peacocks are notoriously loud, with a signature shriek not unlike that of an angry baby. During mating season, they’re even louder. Though he allows his birds to roam across two acres of his ten-acre property, Buffington still often hears their screeching. “It doesn’t take much to set them off,” he said, noting that they always make a racket when a delivery truck drives by. Naturally, those who own penned peacocks in urban and suburban neighborhoods can quickly make enemies in their neighborhood. Any of these factors could’ve played a role in prompting an overwhelmed owner to abandon their birds at Mayfield.
When this happens, the park staff do their best to care for the new arrivals. Last fall, a couple from Wyoming brought a peahen named Juliet to the nature preserve. Instead of leaving her on the property for someone to find, Juliet’s owners called Mayfield Park volunteers and explained their situation. According to the couple, Juliet’s former lover—aptly named Romeo—died tragically, likely from last February’s freeze. Upon Romeo’s death, Juliet became lonely and depressed, and her former owners didn’t have the time or resources to supervise her. Plus, the couple had recently moved to San Marcos, where they didn’t have adequate space to keep peafowl.
Despite the challenges of taking on another bird, which Tollett describes as a “pain in the butt,” he agreed to accept her. To help her adjust and keep her safe from the rest of the flock, Tollett and the rest of the Mayfield team decided to monitor Juliet in an enclosure on the property. Prior to her time at Mayfield, Juliet lived in a pen, so Mayfield Park volunteers couldn’t expect she’d already know how to keep safe from predators at night. (If the Mayfield peacocks don’t go up on the cottage roof or in a tree at night, they’re likely to become a midnight snack for a coyote or bobcat.)
But when a peafowl is penned, Tollett explains, someone has to provide it with its own food and water, find a way to keep predators out, and clean the pen frequently to make sure disease-carrying bugs don’t move in. All told, Juliet lived in the enclosure for about a month. She was a success story; to the best of Tollett’s knowledge, she integrated successfully into the flock and regained her high spirits. Luck, along with help from humans, played a big role in her survival, Tollett says.
This level of care simply isn’t necessary for the birds that hatch at Mayfield Park, all of which roam free on the property. They generally know how to keep safe from predators.
And when they don’t? “It’s the circle of life,” Tollett says with a shrug.