Most people love them, though, to be sure, there are some who find them an annoyance. But almost nobody really knows where they came from. There is something both jarring and serendipitous when you wander the backwaters of Los Angeles, a city much maligned as little more than one big parking lot or strip mall, (or, as Woody Allen famously quipped, a place where "the only cultural advantage is you can turn right on a red light.") and come upon wild peafowl in a few neighborhoods.
But ask a typical Angeleno where they think those peacocks came from, and you'll probably get blank stares. Ask them who Elias "Lucky" Baldwin was, and you'll get more blank stares. Ask them where Baldwin Hills is, or Baldwin Park, or Santa Anita Race Track, and you'll (probably) get a more informed response.
But L.A. has at least 4 distinct populations of feral peafowl thriving within the metropolis. Glendora has one. The Palos Verdes peninsula has one. La Canada-Flintridge has one. And the city of Arcadia has, by far, the largest one. It was long ago named Arcadia's "City Bird", and enjoys legal protections. There are probably 300 to perhaps as many as 400 of them. And they roam the city at will. It's not uncommon, in parts of Arcadia, to wake up in the morning to a scene like this:
They were brought to Los Angeles by a man who deserves a diary of his own...one Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin. Fabulously wealthy, he once owned the Santa Anita Rancho, an original Spanish land grant that he purchased in 1875 from Hugo Reid, and which comprised all of present day Arcadia, Monrovia, Sierra Madre, Bradbury and parts of Pasadena. He acquired the the peacocks after a visit to India, where he went to hunt elephants.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Lucky Baldwin was quite a character. Born in 1828 in Ohio, he moved to California 4 years after the Gold Rush of 1849. Not to mine gold...he was too shrewd for that. He mined miners. He opened up a grocery/dry goods store in San Francisco, and later opened a hotel. All those fortune seekers need supplies, and a place to stay until they got their bearings straight. Most fortunes, I think, were made not from digging up nuggets of gold, but rather selling things to those who had such visions. Baldwin was a perfect case history. He made a loan to a miner, who repaid it in shares of the Ophir Mine in Virginia City, Nevada. At the time, the shares were worth pennies. Once the Comstock Silver lode was discovered, the shares sold for hundreds of dollars. This was where the real fortunes were made in the gold and silver mining booms of the 19th century...not by digging the ore, but by speculating in mining claims and shares.
Baldwin struck it rich, and moved to Southern California, purchasing the 13,320 acre Rancho Santa Anita in cash. When the owner declined an offer of $150,000, Baldwin came back a few days later with a tin box under his arm, containing over a million dollars. He peeled off $206,000 in cash, and walked away with the deed in hand. When Baldwin purchased the tract in 1875, he was no Eddy Albert, nor was he seeking his own "Green Acres." He knew the land would someday be worth much more than what he paid for it. And he wanted a home base for a lifestyle he had earned. Not the "Old Fashioned Way", as in the old Smith-Barney commercial...the American Way...he lucked into it.
Baldwin settled into his rancho and enjoyed the fruits of his career. As I said, he travelled to India to shoot elephants, and brought home some peafowl from that trip to introduce upon his property. They were a status symbol, to be sure...something exotic to liven up his rancho, but they were also good "watchdogs." They were noisy when disturbed, either by humans or four legged predators. And they were quite beautiful. They quickly acclimated to the environs and flourished.
Today, all of the old Rancho Santa Anita that exists is a tract of land that the County acquired and turned into the LA County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. There are still some historic structures located upon the grounds, including the "cottage" that was built as a wedding gift to Lucky and his 4th wife. He was 58 years old, and she was around 18. But, aside from the LA Arboretum, the peafowl still live on.
Over the past 100 years or more they have become more or less feral inhabitants of Arcadia...coming and going within and without the boundaries of the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, which aren't completely fenced in. They have established themselves within the surrounding residential neighborhoods, and roam more or less freely. Don't even think about pegging one with a pellet gun because you don't enjoy it's call in the morning, or its droppings on your driveway. The birds are protected by the City, and if a neighbor spots you doing something so malicious, you'll be reported to the appropriate authorities and fined stiffly. As I said, there are now at least 300 hundred feral peafowl roaming the streets and lawns of Arcadia, California.
In the mid 1990's, my wife and I lived in another San Gabriel Valley bedroom community...Glendora. It, too, has a feral peafowl population, but from another, distinct source. A family by the name of Rubel purchased an old, mostly defunct orchard property in town in 1958, and over the course of 30 years transformed it into one of the more odd local landmarks of Greater Los Angeles..."Rubel Pharm", or "Rubelia". It is a strange, castle-like structure faced with river rock, complete with huge, thick wooden gates, a clock tower, and comprising much of a residential block.
They, too, acquired peafowl at the time they purchased the property, and those peafowl quickly had chicks and outgrew the confines of the original property. There is now a flock of some 45 peafowl that free roam the northern neighborhoods of Glendora. When I used to lve there, my wife and I would walk our dogs in that neighborhood and marvel at them..When a small flock saw us coming, dogs on the leash, they would fly up onto the nearest house roof. (Yes, peafowl can fly). One of them was an albino, which is especially gorgeous.
I've seen a small flock of peafowl take flight and land upon some homeowners roof...perhaps 8 of them at one time. I wonder how 8 peacocks strutting upon your roof sounds, if it sounds at all, while you are relaxing on your couch.
The Peafowl on the Palos Verdes peninsula are another distinct population, and have nothing to do with Lucky Baldwin. Though, they were introduced at around the same time. A prominent banker by the name of Frank Vanderlip, who in 1913 was the president of the National Bank of New York, bought the 16,000 acre peninsula which has spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean sight unseen from a local rancher. At the time, the land was used for cattle grazing.
Vanderlip purchased the property with intentions to develop it down the road, recognizing its potential and views of the ocean. While he owned the vast tract, one of his only complaints was that it was "too quiet." An Vanderlip was, briefly, a contemporary of Lucky Baldwin, during thew last years of his life, and did business with him. But he didn't get his peacocks from him. Those came from another California family of means...the Wrigley family, of chewing gum fortune, who resided on Catalina Island. Upon one of his birthdays, a daughter of the Wrigleys presented Frank Vanderlip with a couple pairs of peafowl from their estate on Catalina. They bred, they saw, they conquered. I'm not sure how many feral peafowl inhabit the Palos Verdes peninsula today, but they are there, and thriving. And that's where they came from.
As for La Canada-Flintridge? Residents there are decidedly anti-peacocks, and many have been haranguing city and county officials for years to get rid of them. Or at least "whittle the down to maybe "8 or 10." Tell me...how do you do that? I guess they prefer feral pitbulls. At one city council meeting not long ago, one resident hyperventialted about "removing hundreds of pounds of peafowl" shit from his driveway *every month. Really??? Hundred of pounds of bird shit each month? These are large birds...but they aren't buffalo.
And they don't exactly mass in the way that Canada Geese do. We are talking about an urban population, in La Canada Flintridge, of about 25 birds...and somebody gets up to the podium and claims to be shovelling "hundreds of pounds" of peacock shit from just his own driveway. I call Peacock shit.
You know what? I live in the city. I wish I had peacocks. Instead, I have crows. Have you ever been woken up at 5:30 AM by CAW...CAW....CAW!!! And not by 6 crows, but by two dozen of them? All day long? What's wrong with people? If you ever take a stroll on a balmy evening through the neighborhood and get to see this, count your blessings: