Peacocks in Somerset
Wedd, George, Contemporary Review
THE setting of this sketch is a cottage garden on the edge of a Somerset village. The time is a warm, sunny afternoon in October 1999. Along one side of the garden runs a large bank of nasturtiums, well past their flowering best. As I stood, wondering whether the time had come to demolish them in the interests of the compost heap, I was suddenly frozen to the spot. Out of the nasturtiums rose three wonderful electric-blue necks, each topped by an imperious Jurassic face: peacocks! Out of nowhere, peacocks! I wondered about this apparition: peacocks; in my book, such amazing creatures belong to country mansions, 'with statues on the terrace. And peacocks strutting by ...' as Kipling said. To see them simply nibbling my nasturtiums seemed like something out of myth and legend, a portent, perhaps.
As I watched, they moved from the flowers to a low wall along the drive, where it is our custom to put out peanuts and breadcrumbs for wild birds. The birds we have had have been the ordinary fowl of a village garden: jackdaws, starlings, magpies, chaffinches and so on. The rarest we have seen has been a great spotted woodpecker, and he did not stay after an interview with our cat. The peacocks hoovered up what there was, and moved away. That, I thought, was that; they have taken their extravagant beauty away to some more fitting scene. But I was wrong. They came back at bedtime (dusk for peacocks), ate some more, and flew to roost in my neighbour's horse chestnuts. Since then, they have taken up residence at our end of the village. We see them most days, and have watched them develop. They are fascinating. As they come nodding and strutting stiffly down the drive, we first named them Wilson, Keppel and Betty -- a music-hall turn of fifty years ago, who did a cod-Egyptian dance, nodding in profile like ancie nt Egyptian reliefs. But all poultry have a pecking order, and we re-named them Topcock, Middlecock and Bottomcock.
When we first saw them, we now realise, they were chicks, less than a year old. Peacocks live from twelve to fourteen years, and are not fully mature for three or four years. They came with neat brown tails, which they used for training purposes. They were not used, as yet, for mating purposes, but mainly for aggression against one another. I am sure they are all brothers, hatched out of the same clutch. It can have been no fun at all to peck your way out of the egg, only to see Topcock, hatched ten minutes before, already sitting on the edge of the nest, regarding you with a beady eye and asserting the rights of seniority. They were, however, playful; their main game was to run beak to tail round a tree in a circle. I wish I were as easily amused!
I left the greenhouse open in wet weather, and they went in, observing seniority. Topcock went in, and sat on the shelf. Middlecock was allowed in, but only on the floor. Poor Bottomcock was hardly allowed in at all. He mooched up and down on the gravel path, moodily kicking the gravel and giving a good impersonation of a teenager looking for trouble. After some months of this, Bottomcock decided that enough was enough. He went, and was last heard of living in the next village, where he resides -- dangerously, perhaps -- next to the butcher's shop and is the pet of that street. I met one in the greenhouse. The surprise was mutual: the bird let out an astonished squawk, and left through a window that was not open. I squawked, too, as I picked up the broken glass. The avian cannonball was unharmed.
By now very interested in peafowl, I began to make inquiries. I was surprised at two things. The first was the sheer number of people who have some experience of them. Wherever I asked -- in Hampshire sixty miles away, or in Lincolnshire three times as far -- I found people who had looked after them. The second thing was the furtiveness with which my inquiries were met. I got no answers until I had established that I was pro-peacock. I discovered that a great many people are not, and that the 'friends of peacocks' are almost a nation-wide conspiracy to protect the birds from enemies. …