Feathers

DICK MEISTER

February 03, 1993|By DICK MEISTER

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Berkeley, that bastion of liberalism known far and wide as a pioneer in dealing with matters of civic importance, is at it again. This time it's peacocks.

Should Berkeley's peacocks be banished, as were Berkeley's pigs before them? Or should they be allowed to continue strutting around the city's streets as free as, well, as free as birds?

The pig question was quickly settled. It took only two meetings last year for the City Council to reject demands that potbellied pigs, described as thoroughly loveable pets, be exempted from the law against quartering ''hogs'' within the city limits.

The council acted decisively despite compelling arguments from pig owners, including : 12-year-old Adam Adler, who wondered ''when was the last time you heard of someone being scratched, bitten or clawed by a pig?''

Peacocks are not quite so lovable. Pretty, yes, but, unlike the pet pigs, a bit remiss in their personal habits. The pigs are easily trained to use litter boxes, but the peacocks prefer sidewalks, lawns and other public places like stairways and roofs.

And of course there's the storied cry of the peacock, that shriek which compares somewhat less than favorably with the soothing gruntle of the pot- or otherwise bellied pig.

It all began with the peacock Jacques. He wandered onto Delaware Street in 1974, abandoned by the owners of a defunct Italian restaurant who had used him as an atmospheric prop.

Jacques was joined a few years later by another male who's called Radar. Five years ago, Jacques and Radar found a mate. No one seems to know how she got there, and she doesn't have a name -- but by now she does have between five and eight offspring, depending on who's counting.

Up and down Delaware Street and environs they strut, proud as peacocks, Jacques, Radar and the wife and kids leaving peacock messes, roosting here, there and everywhere, screeching like peacock banshees.

It's not much fun having a 40-pound peacock roosting outside your bedroom window, particularly not during mating season, when the birds spend much of the early morning hours calling plaintively to their inamorati. As a matter of fact, peacocks are rarely quiet, whatever the season.

''I just can't stand them!'' declared one woman. ''Night after night, year after year! I don't want them hurt, I just want them gone!''

Understandably, the woman wished to remain anonymous. For to suggest curtailing the freedom of anyone or anything, be it man or beast, in politically correct Berkeley is to risk the scorn of one's neighbors.

The City Council nevertheless agreed in December, after months of hearings, that the peacocks had to go, in accord with a previously winked-at ordinance banning unpenned domestic fowl.

Getting the birds to go has not been easy, however. Animal-control officers were to swoop them up and transport them for adoption by bird lovers in nearby Marin County. As viewers of serious television documentaries know, hot tubbers there find peacock feathers quite useful for tickling purposes.

A few peacocks have been caught, including patriarch Jacques. But most have disdainfully ignored the tasty grubs held out to them by men with nets hidden behind their backs. They've been jumping just out of reach, all the while squawking their pretty heads off.

Delaware Street residents haven't been much help, either.

There are those anonymous residents who can't stand the birds, but there also are those who believe fervently in freedom for all creatures great and small, dirty, noisy birds included.

''The first word my son said was 'peacock' -- what am I going to tell him when they're gone?'' asked pro-bird resident Cary Sheldon.

Thanks to the opposition of the peacocks and their supporters, the City Council is considering a measure that would allow two of the Delaware Street birds to remain in Berkeley legally, and City Manager Michael Brown promises that at least two will be allowed to stay until the council makes a decision.

The very standing of pace-setting Berkeley is at stake, says Matthew Owens, who moved into a house on Delaware Street the same year Jacques the peacock took up residence.

Mr. Owens says the decision to banish even just some of the peacocks ''could be indicative of the future atmosphere -- of changes that are coming to Berkeley -- and that's chilling. I always felt that Berkeley was a special place, and these birds were one of the reasons. Now it's as if they have broken the magic circle.''

Dick Meister is a free-lance writer.

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