How Palos Verdes Got Its Peacock Problem

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The greater Los Angeles area is home to a wide array of wildlife that have, to some degree, adapted to the urban environment—from coyotes to mountain lions to peacocks. As the LA Times reports, Rancho Palos Verdes is continuing in its quest to cut down the number of the latter creatures currently residing in the community. The city’s plan, approved last year, calls for up to 150 birds to be captured and shipped off to parts unknown. This comes after an unsettling string of as-yet-unsolved peacock murders in nearby Rolling Hills Estates.

But how did all these peafowl end up on the Palos Verdes peninsula? Well, that’s a matter of some debate. According to a 2010 Times article, the first peacocks were introduced to Southern California by none other than charismatic real estate magnate Elias “Lucky” Baldwin. Known for his tumultuous love life and ostentatious displays of wealth, Baldwin (for whom both Baldwin Hills and the eponymous Pasadena pub are named) made his home on a sprawling 8,000-acre ranch that now makes up most of Arcadia. Here, he cultivated a lush oasis of fruit trees and exotic vegetation. And in 1880, he introduced to the estate a few wild peacocks he had purchased in India. Soon, about 50 of the peafowl roamed the grounds—much to the delight of Baldwin, who apparently was quite a bird lover.

After Baldwin died in 1909, his vast property was slowly sold off, with LA County purchasing 111 acres that later became the LA County Arboretum. As the borders of the estate shrank, the peafowl that roamed it began incorporating themselves into the San Gabriel Valley communities that sprang up on what had once been Baldwin’s land. Did some group of intrepid peafowl head south at this time, eventually making it all the way to the Palos Verdes? No. Almost certainly not. But by the 1920s, the peninsula was home to a decent number of the birds.

They belonged to Frank Vanderlip, the banker who purchased the 16,000-acre Rancho de los Palos Verdes estate in 1913. What isn’t clear is where he got them. Peafowl expert Francine A. Bradley tells the Times that her research suggests that Vanderlip received the birds as a gift from the daughter of chewing gum tycoon and William Wrigley Jr. The birds were apparently taken from Wrigley’s property on Catalina Island.

Filmmaker Vicki Mack, however, disagrees with this story. The producer of a recent documentary on Vanderlip, Mack tells Los Angeles Magazinethat she is “ninety percent sure” it was the daughter of Baldwin, not Wrigley, who gifted the peafowl. Ironically, before receiving the birds, Vanderlip apparently complained that his new home was a bit too quiet for his liking. Now, it’s the shrill squawks of the peacocks (along with the sizable piles of excrement they tend to leave around the neighborhood) that have Rancho Palos Verdes residents up in arms.

It seems that just about anywhere in Southern California that peafowl roam, a wealthy turn-of-the-century industrialist is to blame. In La Cañada, where a fierce debate over what to do about the birds has been raging for decades, peafowl were introduced by Edwin W. Sargent—”father of the land title business in Los Angeles.” At one time, the showy birds were a popular status symbol for members of the very upper echelons of American society. Sadly for the peacocks of Rancho Palos Verdes, those extravagant tail feathers just aren’t as popular as they used to be.

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