Immigrants to the country must expect cows to bellow, donkeys to bray and chain-saws to scream. But peacocks are something else ...
Saturday 09 August 1997
Peacocks, however, are something else. The aggravation they cause is in a class of its own, and I cannot help feeling sorry for the people of Avebury who are being driven demented by the four birds - property of the National Trust - that roam the Wiltshire village.
A long-term peacock-owner myself, I know how the sufferers feel; and experience has taught me that it is unfair all round to keep such large birds, which are only half-domesticated, in any environment shared by humans.
Once you have seen peacocks in their natural state, you cannot contemplate incarcerating them in any form of cage, however large. Nor can you pinion them, to stop them flying, because they must roost aloft to be safe from foxes. Essentially birds of the jungle, they need a tremendous amount of space to flourish; and if they are allowed to roam free in any village, they are bound to cause intense vexation.
It was trips to India and Nepal that encouraged us to take on peacocks. I shall never forget an afternoon spent darting rhinos in the Terai, the plain south of the Himalayas. As our elephants crunched through the scrub, huge birds exploded in bomb-bursts of five or six, climbing steeply against the dazzling white backdrop of eternal snow peaks on the northern horizon.
In England, our first three birds were two hens and a male whom my wife named Shalimar. We were then living in the Chilterns, and the farm was so isolated that there was nobody in earshot to be tormented by the brazen screeches of "Ay-ORRRR, Ay-ORRR" which Shalimar continually trumpeted out in spring.
We ourselves suffered most from free-lance avian gardening. Pacing the flowerbeds, endlessly inquisitive, the peacocks would nip off bud after bud, eating some but dropping most of them disdainfully to the ground. Whenever they decided to take a dust-bath in the vegetable patch, it was curtains for whole crops, young or old.
Mercifully perhaps, our flock never increased much. The hens nested in the nettles behind the farmyard, but cats or foxes got most of the chicks, and Shalimar - driven, no doubt, by the instinct to preserve his personal supremacy - revealed a distressing propensity for murdering his own offspring.
So it was that when we moved to our present home in 1985 we still had only four birds. Catching them for transportation was a saga in itself, but we managed it by fixing up the door of a stable with a long draw-string, luring the peacocks inside along a trail of corn, and yanking the trap shut from a distance.
After being driven down the M4 in individual hessian sacks, they soon took to their new surroundings. But here, though again out in the sticks, we lack the final degree of isolation. A lane runs past the house, and we have one neighbour, a keen and skilful gardener.
It was one thing for passers-by to gawp in admiration as Shalimar displayed on the terrace, with 100 violet eyes glaring from the iridescent green of his fanned-out tail feathers; quite another when our neighbour's rows of newly-sown carrots were left looking like an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum - a relief model of the battle of the Somme, all mounds and craters.
One spring, our surviving female hatched out three male chicks, and when these all grew into strapping teenagers, we decided that the family must go. They were taken on by kind friends in Oxfordshire - but there they created even worse havoc than with us.
Decamping across country into the nearest village, they took up residence in trees around the graveyard and split the community, exactly as in Avebury. One faction demanded their immediate removal or extermination; the other threatened to prosecute anyone who laid a finger on them.
Here, Shalimar lived on for a year in solitary splendour, sometimes doing no mean damage to visiting cars, in whose gleaming paintwork he discerned phantom rivals.
Eventually, one winter dawn, a fox got him in the orchard; and unless I win the Lottery, so that I can buy a stately home in the middle of a 500-acre park, I do not think we shall ever replace him.
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