Sign up for our free newsletter
Doom stalks Joyce Williams at her small brick house on Malcolm X Avenue SE. The towering trees in the sloping woods backing her property topple on occasion, and the next time it could very well be her roof that breaks the fall. Or the end might come when the crumbling retaining wall finally gives way and the hill buries her home in a dirt avalanche.
There’s one hazard, however, that she dreads more than anything else: the bird.
The bird is large, about 30 inches long, and mostly gray-brown. It first waddled out of the woods and onto Williams’ property a little over a year ago, around the Fourth of July. No one knew where it had come from or why. The bird gobbled. It bobbed its head as it walked. When approached, it either took off running or madly flapped its wings and lifted itself to safety in an adjoining yard.
At first, Williams, 66, and her neighbors figured it was a wild turkey, the kind they sometimes spot in the woods down the street. But the bird wasn’t bald like a turkey; it had an umber-brown crown with an antennae-like topknot, and iridescent green plumage around its neck.
Eventually, the D.C. Department of Health informed Williams the intruder was a common peacockor, properly speaking, a peahen. The neighbors affectionately call her Longnecked Lucy, or Lucy for short.
To Williams, though, she is simply “that bird.” And that bird, she says, wants to kill her.
“How would you like a story about a lady dead in the back yard because of a peacock!” says Williams, who’s been home day and night since injuring her elbow on the job a few years ago.
On a Saturday afternoon, Lucy sits just outside Williams’ property line, near the top of the retaining wall in a neighbor’s yard. Peafowl are effective camouflage artists, and Lucy sinks into the shadows of the forest’s edge. In early August, she laid a clutch of large, yellowish eggs in a dirt scrape there, and lately she has spent much of her time hunkered down, burrowing the eggs deeper and deeper into the ground.
Williams is not impressed by the bird’s show of domesticity. She sits on her front porch in her slippers, and, with an unlit cigarette, she points to all the places where the uninvited peacock has dared to step foot: the walk next to the house; the tree overhead, where the bird roosts at night; the flower bed where Williams, aiming for Lucy, flung a serving spoonand where today the spoon remains.
Williams has deployed a wide array of anti-peacock missiles against Lucy, including empty Sprite bottles, an old slipper, a glass cup, a mop, silverware, the broken base of a trophy, and clothespins. At her nest in the back yard, Lucy is surrounded by spray cans and a broken mop handle with which Williams has attempted to roust her, without success.
“I need to find me a gun somewhere and shoot it,” says Williams. “That animal makes me upset, real upset.” Lucy has yet to attack Williamsbut only because she hasn’t had a good chance. Williams stays inside whenever she senses the bird is making her rounds. Others apparently don’t have that luxury. “[Lucy] scared the hell out of the mailman yesterday,” says Williams.
Common peacocks, native to the Indian subcontinent, are kept as semi-domesticated living garden ornaments around the world. Females such as Lucy lack the electric-blue plumage and wild-hued tail fan that have made the preening male of the species an object of adoration for millennia.
According to the International Wildlife Encyclopedia, peafowl exhibit “unusual regularity in their habits” and “readily live around human settlements, attaching themselves to particular buildings”unless, that is, they are hunted or disturbed, in which case they keep a lower profile.
Given the scientific literature, Lucy appears gutsier than most peahens. She roams freely around Williams’ yard, then retreats to her roost or the woods when the heat is on. Williams says the bird has a regular habit of treating her yard as a latrine.
“That bird has me drinking, and I don’t even drink,” she says. Though the aggression is mostly one-wayhuman to birdWilliams is afraid the peahen will attack her when she’s hanging clothes on the line or just sitting outside. Even when she can’t see the bird, she imagines Lucy in her treetop roost waiting to strike. Williams says she has delayed getting the back stoop fixed because she thinks the bird will scare the repairman away.
“I hit it one day in the head with a spoon,” recalls Williams. “It looked like she lost her balance. She didn’t know where she was going. I ran in the house and locked the screen door.” Instead of charging the door to avenge the blow, Lucy simply flew away. “I don’t know where her strength comes from,” says Williams. “She doesn’t fly like other birds,” she adds. “She soars.”
Sometimes, says Williams, she goes to sleep at 5 o’clock in the evening just to get away from it all. But even sleep eludes her. “You can hear it walking on the roof at night, pacing,” she says. “I can’t stand that.” Just inside her front door, Williams has a large gilded peacock ornament mounted on the wall. She says it’s just coincidence.
Williams lives in the house with her daughter and her 8-year-old grandson Deion. Like the other kids on the block, Deion loves Lucy, and has an 8-year-old’s way of showing it: He chases her around the yard and through the woods. “We give it food,” he says. “I try to get close to it, but it moves too fast.” He says Lucy is very helpful, waking his mother for work and him for day care with her morning shrieks. “She doesn’t bother us at all,” he says.
Deion’s relationship with the bird is complex. Williams says that when she heard that her grandson had raided the refrigerator for fresh eggs to pelt Lucy with, she “beat him to death” for wasting food.
Deion first found peafowl eggs in June, on the small porch outside his bedroom, prompting Williams to call on the government to restore order to her backyard ecosystem. She and one of her daughters made more than a dozen calls to District agencies, she says. Williams says she is disappointed she couldn’t get the mayor on the phone.
As a result of the phone campaign, Williams says, someone representing the D.C. Department of Health dropped by, scooped up the eggs, and later informed Williams that they were the unfertilized eggs of a peahen. Like those eggs, Lucy’s current crop won’t hatch, not unless there’s a peacock strutting around unnoticed in the woods.
“Oh lord, a squirrel!” says Williams, jumping in her seat after catching sight of a furry creature on her neighbor’s porch. “Squirrels, lizards, birdswe got everything around here. You ain’t scared?” CP