March 23, 2011
Library Spotlight - Peacocks at the Arboretum
Surrounded! I’m surrounded! Any employee who works at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden has to work through figuring out what their relationship is to the peacocks. We don’t have a peacock biologist on staff, so you can guess that all of us weren’t hired for our peacock expertise, but when you come to work here … hmmmm … the peacocks, in some way, dominate your thinking.
Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin brought them to us. I’ve seen the original receipt for several birds written in the early part of the 20th century. It is from an exotic bird farm. From those humble beginnings the flock that resides in and near the Arboretum is presumed to be about 150 birds. Baldwin’s original purchase has expanded to have territory throughout Arcadia, so much so, that it is a protected bird within the city. Don’t harm and don’t feed, they say.
There is also a group that hangs around the buildings I work in. We’ve had a graduate student, Roslyn Dakin, studying their mating behavior for the last 3 years, so we know that the alpha male peacock has his office, I mean, lek, directly north of our director’s office.
The first impression you get of our group is their extraordinary beauty. It stops all the visitors on their way out of our entrance area. The iridescence on their feathers is astonishing. Now, Dr. Dakin, discovered that when the males are displaying to the females the males increase the effect of the iridescence by standing at a 45 degree angle to the sun.
When you live with them next to your office day in and day out, however, you learn to look away from the peacocks and keep your eyes on the ground, being careful where you step.
During mating season from December to early June their calls are a constant, very loud presence. We have 12,000 different kinds of plants here in beautiful displays, 28,000 different titles in the Arboretum Library, world-renowned historic buildings here, but what we audibly hear “oohing and aahing” about, and crowds gathered, and cameras snapping, and questions after questions are all about the peacocks.
I could call that the “anger” phase. Sometimes, some of us never go beyond that phase. I’ll admit I was there awhile. Then one day on my morning walk at the Arboretum, I saw a group of peacocks swirling around the base of a very large shrub. It was mostly females or adolescents that have drab plumage to avoid predators. There were about 30, maybe 40 of them. I had assumed from watching their behavior around the building that peacocks aren’t very bright, that mostly what they do is beg and strut. I had never seen them in such a large group. This group at the shrub was swirling in a mass as a school of fish does in the ocean, moving as a group with orchestrated movements.
In front of the shrub with its back to the foliage, sitting on its haunches, surrounded by this swirling mass was one, very bewildered, adolescent coyote. I provoked the situation a little just to see what would happen by clapping my hands. The coyote came out of its trance, looked at me and dove into the shrub. The seemingly, liquid group of peacocks flowed into the base of the shrub as well. Wow!
The next time I stood up and took notice was when I saw two males in full mating plumage running at full tilt along the bamboo that borders our fence. Why were they running? They weren’t running away. They were chasing another coyote.
After that was when I really started watching their behavior, studying their natural history, wondering, and watching. That is when I started thinking about dinosaurs and how they became birds. I watched as they scrabbled up the trees to roost in the evening. How long that takes, how high they get, how they use the spurs on their feet to help them climb instead of flying up into the trees; how they glide out of those high roosts in the morning, knowing how hard it is for them to fly. I can see the pterodactyl in them.
Next time you come to visit the Arboretum, really study their feet. That is where the pterodactyl is. This year I finally observed how carefully the mothers lead even their very small children into the trees to roost at night, away from the predators. Trees that they have picked, because they know their tiny children, just hatched with perfect topknots, can climb them.
Ah, the peacocks.
“Peacocks At The Arboretum” in The Quarterly, (www.TheQuarterly.com), (Spring 2011) p. 31, by Arboretum Librarian, Susan C. Eubank
Plate 452. Illustration from Dictionnaire Pittoresque D’Histoire Naturelle et des Phénomènes de la Nature. Editor F.-E Guérin. Published in Paris, 1833-34 from the Rare Book collection in the Arboretum Library.