Someone is killing the peafowl of Rolling Hills Estates.
To so many people, Rolling Hills Estates is paradise. Its borders roll along the hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula in a part of the South Bay dotted with golf courses, gourmet markets and pristine ocean views.
"It's known as an equestrian community. We have about 26 miles of horse trails in the city," said Judith Mitchell, the city's mayor. "It's a great place for families and a great place to raise children. We have a very good school system on the peninsula. Lots of open space."
Families show off their last names over their mailboxes in big, carved wood letters. There's a real-life general store. At city hall, you'll find not one, but two places to tie up your horse on the way to a city council meeting.
But among the 8,000 residents, the backyard chickens and the horse stables are hundreds of Indian peafowl — also known as peacocks and peahens. They roost in the trees, roam the canyons and fields, rest in backyards.
The peafowl arrived here in the early 20th century, brought to the estate of Mr. Frank Vanderlip — a banker and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and one of the peninsula's first developers. His original 16 birds grew into the flocks that dot the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
So who is killing these birds?
A multicolored murder mystery
In the last two years, at least 50 birds have been found dead. Some were hit by cars. Others were poisoned. Still more were shot by pellet guns or arrows.
Leading up an investigation into the killings is Lt. Cesar Perea, a humane officer with the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals L.A., or spcaLA. I met him at the end of Buckskin Lane, where many of the dead birds have been found. Perea said that to him, the ones killed by arrow and pellet stand out most.
"It really shows a high level of violence in the person that's doing it," he said. "Just based on the arrows that were found — the trajectory and the type of weapon that was used — these people are walking right to the animal and shooting it at point blank range."
Why are so many dying? And who's doing it? We don’t know. The poisonings and car collisions could be accidental. The arrows and pellets aren't, but investigators haven't found a suspect. If they're caught, the killer could face up to three years in prison.
The deaths have brought into sharp focus what many residents call the single most divisive issue in parts of Rolling Hills Estates: The peafowl question.
Eric Vander Ploeg, the vice president of the Dapplegray Lane Property Owners Association, said its an issue that comes up at every DLPOA meeting.
"It's not really an issue of if people like them or don't — 'cause most of them like them," he said. "It's how many there are."
Vander Ploeg said the DLPOA performed a survey recently to find out what to do about the peafowl in the area — the survey came back evenly divided.
Some residents say the peafowl are noisy. They eat plants. If they see their reflection in a shiny BMW, they'll mistake it for an another bird and attack, damaging the car.
Cheryl Rajewski has lived here for 15 years. When she first moved in, she said, the peafowl were an adjustment.
"They squawk. They poo. They stand on your car. They run on [the] roof where it sounds like it's a human being," she said. "But they are here, and still — 10 years later — I'm living here, and I'll drive home and I'll see this beautiful bird just sitting in your garden, with its gorgeous feathers. It's like, 'Wow, this is really special.'"
A love/hate relationship
To Mayor Judith Mitchell, the peafowl are a galvanizing force in the communities where they live: Residents either love them or hate them. "As long as I've been in city government, it seems like we've been dealing with this issue," she said.
For years, the people in peafowl territory have been in a stalemate. The city has passed ordinances protecting the birds from being removed and relocated. There are some measures the city and community could take — like training the birds to stay off roofs, or relocating some of the population. But nothing of the sort's happened so far.
In 2005, the city of Rolling Hills Estates hired researcher Francine Bradley and an assistant to take a census of the peafowl. They counted 218 at the time, a number Bradley said has certainly gone up.
Bradley also warned residents that if nothing was done about the population, killings like this would be inevitable.
"Just as ... on golf courses, where waterfowl populations are allowed to increase, you get the situation of the golfer who misses the putt because the ball hits a pile of goose droppings," she said. "And then the golfer rips a driver out of the bag and goes after the goose. It's certainly not justified, but I can understand people's frustration."
Without a culprit caught, without the population put in check or their behavior curbed, life will go on. The peafowl will roost in trees. They will scratch cars. They will walk on roofs. And, on some morning, maybe on Buckskin Lane again, the sun will rise on another dead bird.