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Why do peacocks roam Tampa Bay?

The polarizing poultry live in flocks across the region. How did they get here?

Every evening Patty Crespo tosses dry cat food onto her driveway by the handful. Then she watches as a dozen peacocks descend.

“They all get the message on peacock Yelp," said Crespo, 63. "We have a five-claw rating!”

The Disston Heights resident, a self-proclaimed “crazy peacock lady,” doesn’t mind the feathers in her yard. It’s no big deal when she stumbles across a lump of peafowl poop the size of her palm. It’s all worth it to have beautiful blue-feathered friends parade around, especially when fuzzy peachicks waddle along.

“It never gets old to me," she said as she walks around the block Friday afternoon, greeting the birds. “Good day, ladies!”

Like other peafowl hot spots around Tampa Bay, Disston Heights is a neighborhood divided. About half of the residents are fans of the fowl. The other half hate them. Some even chase the birds away.

“It’s like anything in life,” Crespo said. “You like Trump or you like Biden. You like peacocks or you don’t.”

There’s a case to be made for the peafowl haters. The birds can rip shingles off roofs. They jump on cars and scratch the paint with their nails. They poop — a lot. And during mating season, they shriek, as one 2000 St. Petersburg Times article put it, “like a murdered baby.”

Sometimes, the creatures clash with humans. A 1994 Times story outlined one peacock attack at Dunedin Cemetery, where a flock of at least 50 lived at the time. A peacock landed on the head of a 5-year-old girl, charging at her again as she screamed and tried to escape. The girl was rushed to the hospital, bloodied and bruised.

“I’m telling you, it was right out of a horror flick,” her mother told a reporter. “I can’t even describe to you the fear that I had.”

Flocks of the ornamental birds have been around the Tampa Bay region for decades. But where did they come from?

Patty Crespo, 63, hand-feeds a peacock near her St. Petersburg home on Sept. 21, 2020. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

The suspected source of at least some of Pinellas' peafowl was the Seville Peacock Farm, a long-gone tourist attraction that opened along Haines Road and Gulf-to-Bay in Clearwater nine decades ago.

Jacksonville minister Dr. Eugene H. Pearce acquired the “wild jungle on Old Tampa Bay” in 1882. He had over 230 acres of grove and oak forest, but the land sat dormant until his son, Eugene L. Pearce, planted orange and grapefruit trees in 1898. (Pearce went on to serve as Clearwater’s mayor in 1910.) When a harsh freeze decimated the grove, Pearce had to improvise. Enter the peacocks.

His peacock farm opened in the mid-1930s. The birds ate out of the hands of visitors and posed, tails spread, for photos. Advertisements that ran in the Times called it the “largest collection of peafowl in the world.”

An advertisement for the Seville Peacock Farm in that ran in the Jan. 2, 1938, edition of the St. Petersburg Times. [ ]

The farm shuttered, and in 1968 the land was sold to developers, who turned the site into apartment buildings and Clearwater Mall. The shopping center debuted in 1973. Its logo was a peacock.

That wasn’t the end for Pearce’s flock. Descendants of his birds still roam the region.

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Wandering peafowl sometimes inspire calls by residents anxious to have them removed. But the animals don’t fall within the purview of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said spokeswoman Melody Kilborn. Peafowl are considered domesticated animals, so private property owners are responsible for hiring private wildlife trappers to remove them.

Dr. William Kern, associate professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, specializes in urban nuisance animals like peafowl. He said the state classifies free-roaming peafowl as “feral livestock.” Just like feral chickens or pigs, they become the property of whomever owns the land they are on at the time.

The invasive tropical birds — native to India — tend to be more of a problem in urban areas and heavily suburban areas. There are plenty of grasses, berries, seeds and nuts to graze on, but the peafowl are safer from predators like coyotes and bobcats.

Kern says urban flocks can often be traced back to escapees from wildlife centers, like botanical gardens and zoos, or people who had a few as pets.

• • •

In Disston Heights, where Crespo lives, the story is that the birds came from former Sunken Gardens owner George Turner, who had an aviary in the neighborhood decades ago. A veterinarian that used to live there was also rumored to have raised some peafowl. Dunedin’s Greenbriar neighborhood teems with descendants of a farm where peacocks were grown for their fashionable tail feathers in the 1920s.

According to an oral history of Tampa’s Wellswood neighborhood, the original source of a flock there was a doctor who moved away and left a pair of birds behind. A flock of over 75 now meander by the riverside sections of the community, though birds often fly over the water to Seminole Heights.

“Realtors do warn them, these are part of your neighborhood and they will be here and they will be in your yard,” said Tina Hurless, president of the Wellswood Civic Association.

About 50 peafowl live in St. Petersburg's Jungle Prada community, inspiring the peacock crossing signs along Park Street. [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]

Park Street in St. Petersburg’s Jungle Prada neighborhood is lined with “peacock crossing” signs. David Anderson, 38, said the birds are relatives of Heathcliff and Gertrude, two local peafowl from the 1950s. The Rothman family, who founded the Kane’s Furniture chain, lived near his grandparents on Park Street and ordered the birds as pets. The peacocks arrived in boxes with holes cut out for air. After the birds strolled over to the Anderson residence, the Rothmans decided to let them roam.

Anderson’s family still owns Sacred Lands in Jungle Prada, where he gives history tours with his company, Discover Florida Tours.

“I kind of joke on the tour that we were the unofficial peacock rescue center,” he said.

A mother and baby peacock in Disston Heights on Sept. 21, 2020. The birds often flock around homes that feed them. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Around 1940, the James Ingram family owned 480 acres of orange grove and cow pasture in what is now Carrollwood and Corbett Preparatory School of IDS. An expert at the University of Florida’s agricultural extension suggested buying a few peacocks to act as a security system. Today, dozens of birds still live in the trees and on the playgrounds.

“Whenever people came on the property, they made a huge noise,” said Corbett Prep science teacher Gery Morey, who has worked at the school for more than 50 years. “They were like watchdogs.”

By the time developer Matthew Jetton bought the land to develop homes in the original Carrollwood in the late 1950s, the property was home to about 200 birds.

Today, the peafowl that roam Corbett Prep dine on lunch scraps left behind by students. They’ve been known to perch in the trees and squawk loudly as families visit at night for parent-teacher conferences.

“They come and go as they please, as every teenager would love to,” said Joyce Burick Swarzman, president and former headmaster of Corbett Prep.

"I think it’s something that [students] remember fondly,” she said. “The whole campus is magical.”

Information from Times archives was used in this report.