Feathers fly in dispute over what's fair and fowl


July 28, 1996|By Mike Burns

I CAN SYMPATHIZE with William Hahn's complaints about years of aural assault by peacocks. But he doesn't know how bad it could get.

He says his sleep and peace of mind have been persistently disrupted by these bejeweled birds and their shrill screams, which he compares to the cries of a sick cat.

The distraught Gamber resident appealed in vain to the Humane Society, the Maryland State Police, the Carroll County Planning Department and the farmer who raises these exotic birds for their gorgeous plumes and for their meat.

Eventually, Mr. Hahn lodged a formal complaint with the county's new Agricultural Reconciliation Committee. The committee, which is supposed to reconcile conflicts between neighboring farmer and nonfarmer, rejected the grievance this month, and he's talking about taking his case to Circuit Court.

It could be worse. The peacocks could be released to the wild, with unregulated breeding, and then assiduously protected from any human controls by "animal rights" and "community amenity" advocates.

That's what happened in the place that I call my home town in Southern California, though I haven't lived there for decades.

Someone -- the culprit remains anonymous -- imported these South Asian showoffs more than 40 years ago as live lawn decorations. They escaped and their feral descendants have thrived in the mild oceanside climate. (These pheasants are accurately called peafowl. The male, with the psychedelic tail fan, is a peacock; the female, a peahen. So peacocks can't breed, but peafowl can, as the answer goes to an old riddle.)

For years these brash birds have roosted on roofs and in trees, or boldly strutted around like, well, peacocks. Their catlike cries have persistently disturbed some neighbors, whose environs they particularly favor.

The peafowl call is not raucous, like that of a crow or a rooster. It is startlingly similar to a baby's cries -- which has produced more than a few cases of mistaken identity, with perplexed householders running around their house and yard searching for the invisible "infant."

The birds also scratch up lawns and flower beds and leave their droppings in random locations. (So do robins, but they're lots smaller and easily shooed away.)

From time to time, exasperated souls in the town would seek relief from the city council or the county animal control office. The usual debate would rage but nothing would be done.

The nuisance factor was overruled by the effort and expense of trapping the birds, but particularly by the public opposition that valued the fowl as a quaint attraction and desirable wildlife.

The peafowl population in that coastal town was controlled over the years by uncertain factors. Dogs and foxes no doubt accounted for some kills, as did unwitting motorists. Sea gulls and cats may have taken prey. But a roundup by humans was never sanctioned, and shooting them was prohibited.

Nevertheless, there was always an abundance of peacock plumes for sale at local art shows and community fairs, with no labels of origin to prove they came from a certified farmer.

Which brings us back to Carroll County and the noisy peafowl flock of Greg Frick, who lives a quarter-mile from William Hahn.

The Reconciliation Committee decided that Mr. Frick was managing his aviculture project "according to acceptable agricultural practices." The taped recordings of peafowl cries made by Mr. Hahn did not convince the body that the birds were an especial nuisance; highway noise was even louder.

Others to whom the aggrieved homeowner complained advised him to simply plug his ears with cotton at night. Some suggest that Mr. Hahn may have become too worked up over a minor irritation, as nearby residents have not echoed his concerns.

But he is correct about the disturbing characteristics of peacock calls, and their untimely alarms, as I can attest. Mr. Hahn also raises a more general concern about the purpose and bias of the Reconciliation Committee.

Biased board?

The body was formed by law two years ago to defend farming activities against complaints of suburban neighbors, who didn't realize what the sounds, smells and workdays of agricultural life were really like. The committee has worked out other differences between parties without a formal hearing and decision. But its primary aim is to protect agriculture.

Mr. Hahn makes a good point when he notes that a pet dog that strays onto a farm can be shot without mercy for presumed threat to livestock. But the farmer's animals cannot be similarly dispatched for trespassing, no matter the property damage. It's an unfair, and inhumane, distinction that needs to be reconciled.

We know about the long-standing views of farmers that all stray dogs on their land are just waiting for the chance to rip out the throats of their cattle and sheep. But it's an example, a poignant one for Mr. Hahn and his two beagles that were shot on another's property, of how the reconciliation of Carroll's changing population still has a long way to go.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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