Fine Feathered Friends (A Christmastime Story), by Wes Brittenham

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Author Wes Brittenham

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I buried a peacock this morning at dawn. The sun was rising over the Sandia Mountains and the nearly full moon, just past Winter Solstice, was setting in the western sky. It hung over the west mesa like a pale ghost. The peacock’s iridescent feathers glistened and gleamed in radiant jeweled tones as I positioned the lifeless body into the hole I had dug in Mother Earth.

I apologized to the still bird for bending his gorgeous tail feathers to fit into his final resting place. These magnificent plumes had been well on their way to becoming the spectacular display he would have proudly raised in spring, come mating season. Shed in mid-summer, the brilliant plumes begin to re-emerge in fall, and grow through the winter in ever increasing splendor.

I laid a hand on his beautiful body and noted how his head bent back over his neck as though sleeping, resplendent in shimmering shades of turquoise and sapphire. I thanked him for the beauty he had brought into so many lives. In a foolish moment of sadness, I admonished him for not looking both ways before he crossed the road. And I was, I must admit, a bit angry that some driver had not seen his spectacular presence before running him down with a car.

As I began to gently place soil over the shining feathers, I thought back over my peacock year. This bird would never know how many Instagram posts or Facebook shares he had been a part of. Or how he had become a part of a still unfolding story in my daily life. He was one of two male peacocks that paraded majestically over the grounds at Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm. Sharing the spotlight with three hilarious male guinea fowl, and a family of four alpacas. They have all become media darlings.

I have the privilege of being the Farm and Landscape Manager here, and these glorious creatures are part of my daily life. In the past, there was a white peacock, Albert, who was the star of the show. But he had vanished, either a victim of coyotes, or more likely, the trio of dogs from the neighbor’s property, sweet to people, but with a hunger for birds. They had killed one of the guineas just before Albert vanished.

The legend of Albert was in the air, and another local farmer, hearing the story, offered us peacock eggs last spring. He had a white male of his own, and thought we might get a white one when the eggs hatched. He gave us fifteen eggs, which we placed in an incubator in the greenhouse.  We watched over the incubator closely. We monitored the temperature and humidity. We took turns turning the eggs every three hours, just so. We kept a calendar and records, but as the expected hatching date came and went, none of the eggs proved viable.

The farmer gave us seven more eggs, and with the same care and attention, we waited with anticipation. We candled the eggs to peep through the glowing shells and determined over time that three of these seven held promise, if not growing chicks. Hatching day was an event, and we farmers hovered over the incubator as other employees and guests popped in to watch with subdued excitement.

The eggs wobbled with the movement of the stirring babies within. After an eternity, a crack appeared on one of the eggs. The crack pushed out a bit and for a second, the tip of a beak popped out and just as quickly retreated. Over the next three or four hours the eggs hatched. One at a time. The wet, ungainly, and exhausted chicks emerged, kicking and pushing and lying still in the effort of shedding their shells.

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We cheered and felt like proud parents. The babies grew in their nursery in the greenhouse until we moved them over to the farm, into a large coop built by the farmers. They will remain there until we release them next spring. Two males and a female they are, and one of the young lads is working on his tail display, though he won’t get his big boy feathers until next year.

The farmer that gave us the eggs decided to get rid of his flock, and offered us his white male. I went to check out the situation at his place in Corrales. He had seven birds, five were females. He suggested that the white one was bonded with a particular female, and that we should take the pair. He seemed disappointed that I did not want them all. The peacocks were in a large run of domed wire, ten feet wide, thirty feet long and eight feet high, with several large tree trunks growing through, and perches running down the center within.

This is how I became a peacock wrangler. I had taken a photo of the female we were to catch along with the white male. When one of my farmers and I went back the next day, all the females looked exactly the same. And catching peacocks is not easy. I had done some homework, and learned that if you tie their legs, they tend to lay calmly where you place them. We had borrowed the van from the Wholesale Lavender Department, and I was glad to see the floor was spread with cardboard. Birds poop a lot.

We stalked, we chased, we grabbed, and we unintentionally plucked. We missed again and again.  Then I noticed a sort of lean-to in a corner of the run, near the door. A three foot by three foot piece of plywood wall and the same for a roof, with a gap just at the corner edge of the run, big enough for the birds to get around on the one side. This would leave a three foot opening on the other side. If we could herd the bird under the plywood, one of us could try to grab it as it exited the other side.

I decided we should go for the white one first. He was the main reason we were there in the first place, and obviously distinct. We formed a dynamic duo and spread our arms wide. Moving slowly we urged several birds including the white one, towards the corner. In they went between the wood and wire, and I dove for the doorway on the open side. I made a quick successful grab at the white male, catching his wings, holding them to his sides and clutching him to my chest. His feet were tied with twine and we brought him to the van and laid him gently on his side on the cardboard. He lay still, looking at us the way birds do.

Now with our herding experience growing, it did not take long to catch a female. I would learn the next day that I did not get the right one. Using the same technique, one was captured, tied and placed in the van. We had a couple of scratches and a bit of poop on us, but all was good. By the time we got back to the farm, the birds had pooped a few more times, and crawling over the cardboard to get them out spread things around. The back of the van was full of poop and feathers, and looked rather sinister. We got the birds safely into their new home, a coop built back to back with that of the chicks we had hatched in the spring.

The chicks, now bigger than chickens, were curious about their new neighbors, and we hoped their presence would calm the new arrivals. All seemed well over the next couple of weeks. Then I got a message that the farmer who gave us the birds needed help catching and transporting the others to new homes. By now a semi-experienced peacock wrangler, I grabbed one of my farmers and made a plan. We headed to Corrales with our twine and cardboard, peacock wrangler hats firmly in place.

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One by one the five remaining peacocks were captured. Four females and a male. Many feathers were lost. My farmer actually got a black eye from being banged in the face by a bird. I was scratched and a bit bloodied. By the time the birds were bound, transported, and released we were covered in scratches, feathers and shit. So was the borrowed van. We gave the male and two females to a farmer just south of us, and the other two to a home a few miles further to the south. About three weeks had passed since the white male and his accidental partner had joined us.

 One morning, arriving at work, I drove down the long road next to the farm and I saw a female peacock standing outside the coop holding the white male and his friend. Throughout the day, she would not leave the area. I assumed that this was one of the two females that, with the other male, had been left with the farmer to the south of us. I guessed that somehow, perhaps through calls I had not heard, she had located her buddy. This was the female I was supposed to have caught with him in the first place.

She had crossed a couple of fields and flown over a couple of fences to reunite with her man. Peacocks do not mate for life, and generally, after mating, the males leave the females to incubate eggs and rear young on their own. That this pair had some sort of bond was unusual. We had planned on releasing the two new peacocks around this time, so we brought them from the coop to the center of the property and let them loose. The white male immediately disappeared into the shrubbery, and the female flew high into the branches of an ancient cottonwood, where she remained even as we left for the evening.

The next morning, the remaining female from the farm to the south appeared on our farm. We noticed all three females with the white male. The strolled around the grounds seeming to feel at home. Later in the day, they were seen heading east, towards an exit gate. We did not see them for the rest of the day. The following morning we found some white feathers with a bit of blood on them, on the ground in a wooded part of the landscaped grounds. Coyotes? Dogs? We never saw the white male again. The three females took up residence, on the private patio of the executive director, where they pooped prodigiously and made a racket.

After a couple of weeks, they made their way to the north end of the property, where they found our two resident male peacocks, who liked to lounge near the feeding station on the back porch of the owners of Los Poblanos. In no time the volume of peacock poo on the porch was enough to have a request delivered to me that I capture the three wayward females and find another home for them. Our males were working on growing out their tail feathers for next year’s mating season, and I had begun to imagine how they might make out with females of their own kind to display to, instead of the trio of male guineas who were the usual targets of peacock proudness.

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With a larger group of wranglers, we set out to capture the girls. It is one thing to catch a bird in a coop or run, and quite another to try it in the open. We would try in the early morning, when they gathered at the feed station on the patio. The first morning I got lucky. I caught one. I thought I was becoming a pro. Fortunately, I had a friend down in Soccoro with two male peacocks. She had lost her females a couple of years ago and was looking for companions for her guys, Mr. Fancypants and Pretty Boy.

Her husband drove up to get the bird, who had been tied and boxed. It took a couple of weeks of trying, but finally one more was captured and adopted. A number of failed attempts have been made to capture the remaining rogue female, but she has abandoned the back porch for the wilds of the larger property. Just last week we almost got her, but they can launch like rockets over your head, and she did.

Then the call came last night that one of the male peacocks had been hit by a car and killed, right in front of the Inn. Too late and too dark to do anything, his body had been wrapped and covered, and in the cold night his body had been placed in the barn to await my dawn visit. As I carried him to his final resting place, this peacock summer swirled through my mind. I recalled that two nights ago, I had a dream. In the dream I walked among peacocks. I bent to stroke the luminous feathers and admire the awkward grace of movement. Male and female, they surrounded me. I reached to pick up one of the males, and marveled at his calmness, his stillness as he allowed me to lift him.

I held him in my arms. He did not move. I felt a connection to him as I do to all living things, and to birds in particular as they have been an unusual presence throughout my life. I do recall that even in the dream, the stillness seemed odd. Today, as the sun rose and the moon set, and the feathers of the dead bird shimmered even as the damp cool soil cascaded over them, I was moved. I felt a piece of me flying away, and a piece of me coming home at the same time.

I went to let the front desk staff know that the burial had taken place. As I came back out to the parking lot, the remaining male peacock appeared. His feathers sparkled in the rising sun. He walked across the asphalt to the spot of blood that still remained, and stood over it for a moment, beak to blood. I reached into my pocket for my phone, feeling strange that I wanted to get a photo of him right there. Before I could get my phone out and set to camera, he turned to look at me.

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I knelt down and the beautiful bird approached me. I was smitten with the radiance of his plumage and bearing as he drew near. I snapped a couple of pictures as he paused before me. I told him his friend was gone and that I had just buried him at the farm. He looked at me, the way birds do. Then he strolled away, slowly, majestically and I watched for a moment as I thought of what was lost. And what a gift I had just been given.

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