The end of NASA's shuttle space program two years ago left a touristic void in Cape Canaveral, Fla., when hundreds of thousands of people stopped traveling to the Space Coast to see the space planes take flight. Surprisingly, another kind of flying object has become an attraction in the coastal region: peafowl, which congregate by the hundreds in the nearby beachside community of Harbor Heights. "Peacock Gawkers," as locals call their new flock of tourists, arrive daily by scores to see the blue-green spectacle of birds strut their stuff. But locals aren't so thrilled with the birds or their newfound fans. The tourists feed the fowl, alight from their rental cars and traipse across lawns with iPhones, snapping pictures, unmindful of residents' privacy or serenity. "It's like living in a theme park," local resident Terry Bohak clucked.
The birds' allure is understandable. Lustrous emerald and sapphire, the peacocks are resplendent creatures: rich, with hounds-tooth-like shoulders and caramel under-wings, they stand around in turquoise Elizabethan collars and parade like maharajas. The birds have been prized for a large part of human history as both zoological specimens and centerpieces. Cleopatra fed peacock to Caesar at her famously lavish banquets. Peacocks and their feathers were popular in the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI as markers of royal decadence. Still today, peafowl are the national bird of India, where they are sacred.
But in Harbor Heights, a town of about a hundred mostly low-slung bungalows and ranch-style homes on the cape, people are less amused. More than anything, the birds are a nuisance. Local officials estimate there are anywhere from two- to four-hundred wild Indian peafowl in there. With no natural enemies, they have taken over the town and they do not fear anyone or anything. They occupy lawns and are unmoved by gardeners with weed whackers. They walk in front of moving cars, carelessly, because they know the people will stop for them -- though some residents purposefully do not. Cautions one resident: "You do not want to be the one to run over a peafowl in front of the school bus."
The birds crash through screened-in porches; soil driveways; devour landscaping; and emit a skin-splitting scream that peaks at night and at dawn. Being rather territorial, they congregate on specific lawns and driveways, and roost on air-conditioning units and challenge their reflections in cars, their talons scratching the paint. Howls one resident: "It's like they own the place." The worst time of year is right now, when tourist season and mating season collide: both the birds and their Gawkers are in full.
The males lead the mating ritual: they fan their tails open to 180 degrees -- 200-yard-long feathers with pool blue eyespots -- and shimmy like Vegas showgirls. They trample flowerbeds and perch on rooftops, allowing their collapsed tails to cascade over the shingles like deep blue waterfalls, and honk --"Yeow! Yeeeooow!" -- to woo their intended and far-more-dowdy hens. It would be a romantic, pretty sight were it not for their relentless screeching yelp, which local resident Brett Zachar says sounds "like someone being murdered."
Many types of birds flock to Harbor Heights. There are ibis, egrets, cranes, pelicans, seagulls, cardinals, mockingbirds, grackles, turtledoves, woodpeckers, osprey, hawks, owls, and ducks, but they are all either indigenous or migratory and many are protect by wildlife conservation laws. The peacocks, however, are not: they are considered a domestic species, like chickens. And they were brought there by man. One particular man, in fact: local farmer Bill Eberwein, who thought they would make for cool lawn ornaments on his five-acre property. In 1986, the Eberwein family sold the farm to developers, who built Solana Lakes Condominiums. The family did its best to round up the birds before the bulldozers arrived. But Bill's son Wallace Eberwein admits, "There were some peacocks that we never could catch."
Naturally, they multiplied and moved into Harbor Heights and the surrounding area. Don Bollman, a local senior citizen with an immaculate lawn, remembers the first day he saw one; he was painting the eaves of his house and almost fell off a ladder. As the flock grew, so did the damage it caused. Eventually residents became fed up and tried to control the situation on their own. Some routinely would shake or break eggs to reduce the number of a year's hatchlings. In the spring of 2012, a resident of Ocean Woods, the neighborhood south of Harbor Heights, began to hunt and poison the birds. The shooter became known as the local "lunatic sniper"; he/she stood down before officials could figure out who it was.
Eventually, local officials were compelled to address the situation. Three years ago, the city manager hired a company of trappers to "thin" the population -- by catching the animals and relocating them to another place, in this case a sanctuary in the inland, says the Cape's Community and Economic Development Director Todd Morley, de facto authority on the issue. But it turned out many of the peafowl were being put down. Residents had a fit: They didn't necessarily like the birds, but they didn't want to send them to slaughter them either. The city cut the contract immediately and has never tried "thinning" again.
In October 2010, Morley hosted a workshop to discuss the problem. But the meeting largely devolved into finger pointing and name-calling. To smooth feathers, the city published an information sheet, "Living With Peafowl," that suggests using "sprinklers or a garden hose to remove peafowl from a resident's lawn" and landscaping with plants the birds are loathe to eat, like "azaleas, bougainvillea, ferns, hibiscus, lantana, marigolds, roses, plumbago, and oleander." Peafowl, the memo noted, love broccoli and dry cat food. A resident told me they do not like lettuce or strawberries. They go crazy over chocolate chip cookies.
Some citizens have requested the town to conduct a survey to get an accurate population count as well as accident statistics; they want lower speed limits, to offer a peafowl adoption, and--in a state that has moved to defund Planned Parenthood--launch a peafowl birth control program.
Not everyone in Harbor Heights is anti-peafowl, however. About half the neighborhood are not. Recently, a local garage sale advertised: "Come enjoy the sale and see the peacocks." A real estate listing for a three-bedroom ranch-style home stated: "Bright & Cheery home in a quiet neighborhood shared with the peacocks." "They do leave us gifts," says Jo-Anne Jensen, a serene, gray-haired yoga and painting instructor, pointing out the beautiful long tail feathers she re-gifts to the tourists who stop and talk.
Morley often feels it is a "no-win" situation, since the two camps -- affectionately called "the peacock-lovers" and "the peacock-haters" by the city -- are entrenched. Even though the city has determined the peafowl to be a private property issue, he is willing to try and find a solution. Recently, Morley says that Cape Canaveral has offered to cost-share a trap-and-relocate program with a homeowner's association if the neighbors can reach an agreement. And a rural landowner in Brevard County contacted Morley to say the birds are welcome at his place. "I love them," the man, who asked to remain anonymous, declared. "And I've got acres and acres and acres." Morley put him in touch with a few residents, but doesn't know how far that went.
In the meantime, the peafowl's numbers are strong and it may be the problem is there to stay. "I would probably miss them if they were gone," says 90-year-old resident Richard Thurm. Then his face fills with mischief. "But I'd like to try it!