“These cats are predators that cause problems for humans. . . . I have been considering hunting a mountain lion. I am curious what the meat tastes like, and I would love to have one mounted in my living room. There is room for all of God’s creatures right next to the mashed potatoes on my plate.” — Letter to the Editor, Omaha World-Herald, Jan. 7, 2014
Guess what we saw on the bus home, Dad? A peacock walking across the road with a bunch of turkeys—we all freaked out, even the driver!” — Spencer Price, author’s son, age 9
COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) — Citizens of this community on the banks of the Missouri River are in an uproar over recent sightings of a free-roaming, feral peacock. The presence of the bird, a large male, has excited local imaginations but also raised concerns about safety and whether this populated area, long empty of most of its native wildlife, is prepared to host such an unpredictable and potentially dangerous animal.
“This is a serious situation,” said Dan Chalmers, a conservation officer with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Sure, peacocks are pretty, and we’ve all enjoyed seeing them on TV, but does anyone know how they behave in the wild? We have no idea what to expect.”
Part of Chalmers’ concern arises from a nearly fatal encounter last month with a family of five on their way to the grocery store—the first reported peacock sighting in the area.
“It was my day with the kids, okay, and we were totally out of Diet Mountain Dew,” said parent Julie Novotny. “So I throw the boys in the minivan and about half-way along that little stretch of woods across from the high school, this giant blue-green monster explodes out of the trees and flaps across my windshield. Suddenly we’re screaming our heads off and I’m weaving all over the road—I seriously almost flipped the van! When I finally got us pulled over, there it was: a huge peacock, not five feet away and all puffed-up like the Fourth of July, glaring at me. I immediately called 911.”
By the time police arrived, the bird had fled, but its proximity to the school prompted District Superintendent Craig Montrose to cancel classes for the rest of the week. Council Bluffs Mayor Todd Calhoun feels Montrose’s actions were justified, and although there have been no reported attacks, he and other city officials continue to urge caution.
“It’s all about respecting the wild nature of this animal,” Calhoun said. “I’ve been told peacocks possess very sharp beaks and foot spurs, and aren’t afraid to use them. So it’s important to keep the kids and pets close to the house, especially at dusk, and to make loud noises when taking out the garbage. If confronted, you should make yourself large by lifting your arms above your head and back away slowly. Don’t run, as that may trigger its chase instinct, and whatever you do, don’t look into the eyes on its feathers as you could become paralyzed with fear.”
Chalmers agreed that citizens should take reasonable precautions and cited recent DNR research into the history and temperament of this species.
“Apparently, the male is officially called a peafowl and is native to India. Some Hindus over there believe the god of war rode a peacock into battle, which should tell you everything you need to know,” said Chalmers.
While it is unclear how such a large, colorful, and potentially dangerous bird could remain undetected for so long in this urban area, Chalmers referenced a recent sighting by a “freaked out” elementary school bus driver and his children passengers of the peacock cavorting with a gang of wild turkeys. He believes the turkeys could be providing the outsider with food and protection.
“They may consider the peacock one of their own kind,” Chalmers said. “Or some version of what they want to be, like a movie celebrity or a god. Personally, I suspect it’s nesting somewhere down by the casinos, where it can blend in. That’s what I’d do.”
The question of why the peacock has chosen the Council Bluffs area as home remains a mystery. Although just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, a metropolitan area of nearly one million, Council Bluffs is located within the Loess Hills of western Iowa, an internationally unique natural area which contains most of what remains of the state’s original prairies and savannahs. Even so, the hills continue to be excavated for development and used as land fill. Lewis and Clark and other early explorers to the area observed a wilderness replete with large native animals, including bison, bear, elk, and wolves, all of which were exterminated by the end of the 19th century. Their return appears unlikely. Iowa currently has less than one-tenth of one-percent of its native habitats remaining, the lowest percentage in the U.S. Recently, however, mountain lions have been following hunting routes from Wyoming and the Black Hills of South Dakota back to the Missouri River Valley where the species once resided for centuries. A few have been spotted in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, prompting front page articles and warnings in area newspapers and on radio and television, though there have never been any reported mountain lion attacks in the Midwest.
Unlike mountain lions, the peacock is not native to Iowa, but one theory suggests it may be taking advantage of an ecological opportunity created by the near complete elimination of indigenous species and the habitats that once supported them. This poses a unique population control problem, according to Chalmers.
“Peacocks have no known natural predators, not even humans, so right now this bird is sitting pretty at the top of the food chain,” said Chalmers. “With the mountain lions, we know from experience that most of those in Iowa will be hit by vehicles or shot dead on sight. Across the river, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission recently opened a hunting season for the 20 or so lions in that state, and we’re currently reviewing a public petition asking that we do the same here with peafowl. That decision is pending, but either way, something’s going to have to be done for the sake of public safety. And I have a message for Mr. Fancy Feathers: it may not be pretty.”
Ty Miller, the author of the DNR petition and resident of nearby Crescent, Iowa, says he and other local hunters are more than ready to collaborate with state officials on establishing a limited hunting season for peacock.
“Hunters are by definition conservationists,” said Miller, “and this is clearly a conservation challenge we can assist with. Now, I’ve never eaten peacock, but I was reading on the internet that Medieval kings used to serve them and swans at royal banquets. I’ve actually eaten swan and let me tell you, it’s good stuff, so I trust those guys. Plus my wife thinks a peacock will make a more stylish wall hanging above the couch than the Arkansas boar’s head I’ve got up there now. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Although the fate of this particular bird remains uncertain, some residents are hoping it remains in the area, citing the need for a new injection of wildness into the life of the community and the potential for attracting eco-tourist dollars.
“This peacock could be the biggest thing to happen to Council Bluffs since local girl Farrah Abraham appeared on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant,” said chamber of commerce member Bea Dandridge. “Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve had a decent wild animal to put on a t-shirt around here? Deer have been done to death, and we’re all getting a little tired of watching them eat our ornamental hostas. So have black squirrels, which are kind of the town mascot, but they’re technically a rodent. After that, we’re looking at the mosquitoes out on Mosquito Creek and some endangered creature living in the Loess Hills, a toad or skink or something. That’s never going to sell.”
Local children also seem excited about the mysterious stranger from the wild, despite the fears and warnings of grown-ups. Noah Vandermaten, 12, who claims to have witnessed the peacock strutting across his backyard, hopes it will stick around.
“When I first saw it, I was playing zombie ‘Black Ops,’ but I just dropped the controller and ran to the window,” said Vandermaten. “Dude, that thing was cool with its tail all up and its hundred eyes staring at me like the Wart Boss in Zelda: Majora’s Mask. And have you, like, seen Kung Fu Panda 2? The peacock warrior in that movie kicked some serious butt! I’ve been looking out the window for it ever since and even went outside a couple times, but haven’t seen anything.”
“I think the peacock may be kind of sad and lonely,” said Kaitlyn Crosby, 10, “and I hope no one hurts it. One time I heard it at night, because its voice is real loud and screechy and not like anything else I’ve heard in my yard. It sounded like it was crying, ‘Help! Help!’, but I didn’t know if it needed help or if it was saying someone else needed help or what I was supposed to do. And no one around here can really tell me.”
Whether help for the peacock is forthcoming, and what form it will take, is yet to be determined. Another petition circulating has called on the DNR and city of Council Bluffs to take measures to sedate and transfer the bird to a safe facility, such as nearby Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, which has experience with wildlife rehabilitation. In 2003, zoo staff captured a male mountain lion that had been shot in the leg by a startled police officer in downtown Omaha. After healing from its injuries, the lion—now popularly called “Omaha”—was moved to an enclosure in the zoo’s Cat Complex, where it remains today for visitors to admire.
“That might be a possibility in this case,” said Chalmers, “but like I said, public well-being always comes first. If the peacock is captured alive, I’m not opposed to locking it behind glass at the zoo, where it would certainly receive the royal treatment it seems to think it deserves. Who knows, maybe they could put him in a cage next to old Omaha, to help educate young people about the natural history of this area. Not enough of them appreciate that nowadays.”