Deep archives: I get my hands dirty

One thing I’ve felt a little bad about here is the amount of shit, literally, that my field assistant Rob has had to deal with. He’s the one who has to hold each peacock still in his lap for about an hour while I carefully measure and apply stickers to all of their tail feathers, and he takes a hit whenever the peacocks do what any reasonable animal would do when restrained by a giant predator. And these hits happen frequently.

I realize that this kind of mess is all just part of field biology (and I tried to give Rob some advance warning to this effect). However, it’s one thing to talk about it and another thing entirely to be on the receiving end. I hope Rob was happy today when we came across a little mystery in the park that had me get my hands a little dirty as well – the mangled remains of a peacock tail, the first direct evidence of peacock predation that I’ve ever seen

The specimen had a few eyespot feathers and the longest train feathers intact, along with some of the golden-coloured lower back feathers and (brace yourself) the last few fleshy vertebrae. I dutifully checked through the train to make sure that it was not one of our banded males (we sample the longest 5 train feathers from all of them, so if this was a banded male I would have found evidence of this), and then I took all of the eyespot feathers I could find. This afternoon, I returned to the scene after realizing that I could measure the length of the tail as well. A quick check of the tape measure (101 cm) confirmed that this was definitely not one of our banded birds (all had tails well over 115 cm).

Some peacock forensics

Biology nerds might also be interested to know that the most of the eyespot feathers were missing from the tail (only the very longest and very shortest feathers were there). My guess is that the others were lost in the struggle, evidence that this bird may have indeed been caught by the tail.

Deep archives: Lek in flux

The peacocks here are fickle.

Just when we think the good stuff is about to begin, we’ll have a day where all they want to do is sleep and eat. And it doesn’t seem to be based on the weather (at least not in any simple way), since the activity level has waxed and waned over the past week despite consistently warm clear days.

The one thing we’re sure of is this: we arrived here just on the cusp of the breeding season (more or less perfect timing, although possibly a little too early). We didn’t see any males display their trains our first day, but as time wore on we saw a few opportunistic male dances (despite a lack of female interest). About a week in, we started to hear a lot more calling by males in the morning, and we saw a few more displays and a little male-male aggression. It seemed as though males were starting to establish their territories. Each morning, we’d notice them spreading a little further away from the ideal habitat around the park entrance and cafe.

One morning this week we saw five males positioned strategically around the outskirts of a the big lawn to the north of the cafe, stationary but neither feeding nor resting (which certainly suggests territorial behaviour to me). The next day, a handful of new males had spread into the staff parking lot where we process captured birds. When we brought our first catch of the day back into the shady corner of the lot for processing, one of these new males started following us. A beggar, we initially thought, until he actually started trying to attack the bird Rob had in hand. Apparently the sight of male plumage is enough to provoke an attack even if it’s suspended above the ground under the arm of a giant! We’ve solved this problem by moving our sampling station and by having me chase away the odd interrupting bird (which sometimes ends in both of us running in circles).

Most recently, we are starting to see a few males in regular territories but we still can’t tell what is going on with the bulk of them. Our strategy is to put all of our efforts into catching until the middle of next week. Then, we’ll head to San Francisco for a couple of days off and hope that things will settle down by the time we get back!

Deep archives: Let’s enjoy a wonder time

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Los Angeles for two weeks now. Time flies when you’re trying to outsmart wily peafowl.

The best way to describe my experiences here so far would be (consistent with my history): extremely lucky. Last fall I had managed to find a furnished room for rent at a ridiculously low rate just a couple of miles from the Arboretum, but had no idea what to expect since my contact with the landlord was limited to email. When Rob and I arrived in town two weeks ago, directions in hand, we drove past a number of elaborate looking houses on the way to our rental accommodations. As we passed gated lawns adorned with fountains and statues with our destination just blocks away we were getting quite excited.

Our house, it turns out, is rather modest for the neighbourhood. Our landlord, Shih, teaches math at a local high school. She is, as Rob describes, an alarm-system enthusiast and also a collector of old newspapers and other bizarre items that fill every available cupboard and surface in our bedroom. Luckily for us she is also quite a wonderful lady; she’s fed us several times, given us gifts of crackers and towels and even granted Rob responsibility for household affairs when she went away for a few days last week.

Huge cycad in the prehistoric forests of the Los Angeles Arboretum

Our luck continued as we started our first day of work at the Los Angeles Arboretum – it may be the most idyllic place to work on peafowl conceivable. The park is full of interesting gardens and trees of exotic proportions, including some positively prehistoric looking cycads, a bamboo forest full of hidden treasures, and an orange grove (and I can assure you that the fruit is delicious). Visitors are encouraged to venture away from the paths, and when you do you often come across park benches nestled in shady out-of-the-way places that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. It is exactly the kind of place where I would love to bring a book and spend the entire day reading outside.

We also saw a great deal of peafowl the first day at the Arboretum- and learned from the park director that these birds are descended from two pairs imported into the area by Arcadia’s founder (J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin) a century ago. The population has grown to over 200 and is now spread throughout the residential neighbourhoods surrounding the Arboretum. While the birds apparently range quite widely for most of the year, they descend upon the Arboretum at the start of every breeding season (which, as it turns out, is exactly now) as it provides a safe-haven for lekking.

Driving around Arcadia, you can’t help but notice evidence of peafowl as the official city mascot everywhere – from the stylized peacock that adorns all of the Arcadia street signs and the small park next door to our house, to the logos for the Arcadia chamber of commerce and golf course, to the giant peacock fountain in the large central city park, to (most hilariously) a massive peacock stained glass window over the door of one Arcadia mansion.

We spent some time exploring the residential neighbourhoods around the park, and saw plenty of peafowl lazing on the well-groomed lawns and idly crossing the streets (Arcadia has even published a pamphlet explaining how to live in harmony with these beasts, here). Unfortunately, we can’t access the suburban birds for sampling because feeding and catching peafowl is prohibited under Arcadia bylaws. However, we’ve been granted free reign of the birds on the private park property, and I’ll write more about our efforts with them soon!