Some people raise chickens. Others raise cows.
Sturgeon County’s Brian Mullen raises peacocks.
“The actual species name is peafowl,” he notes, standing outside his large backyard bird pen. Females are peahens, babies are chicks, and males are peacocks.
“Oo-WAAH!” yowls one of them from inside the pen.
Mullen has scores of these exotic birds on his acreage southwest of Morinville. The mind reels at the sight of so many of them strutting about in one place, their shimmering blue, creamy white, and scintillating green bodies leaping out against the drab dirt of the Alberta prairies, their emerald tails trailing behind them like bejewelled wedding-gown trains.
Mullen says most people are surprised when he tells them that you can raise peafowl in Alberta. Others are entranced when they see them wandering about his farm, and will watch them for hours.
“I’ve never found anyone who didn’t like them!” he chuckles.
Mullen is one of about four Sturgeon County farmers who will throw open their gates this month as part of the county’s annual Agricultural Service Board Tour.
About 150 area ag fans will get on a bus on Aug. 10 to see the vast array of farms in Sturgeon, says Shelayne Hofman of the county’s agricultural services department. This year’s tour includes a pulse-cleaning plant in Gibbons, a haskap berry farm near Alcomdale, and a sod farm.
Meet the peacocks
Mullen says the county asked him to be on the tour this year due to his work with peacocks and with planting trees to restore the riparian zone along a nearby creek.
Mullen says he grew up on a farm raising chickens and learned to dislike them, which is why there’s just one of them on his current farm – a fat white one named Howard. His first encounter with a peacock was decades ago at the famous Alberta Game Farm, which was run by wrestler/naturalist Al Oeming east of Edmonton, for many decades prior to the 1990s.
“He had animals from all over the world,” Mullen recalls, including bears, buffalo and a tame cheetah, and would tour constantly to speak about animals.
Mullen says he got into peafowl via pheasants, which he started raising back in the 1980s as a hobby. Many of his fellow breeders also kept peafowl, and he found they were much easier to raise.
“They get along with pretty much all the other birds,” he says, and, unlike pheasants, you don’t have to put little blinders on the chicks to keep them from pecking each other.
The birds are hardy enough to tolerate Alberta’s winter with shelter, and subsist on water, grain and bugs. All you need to do to raise them is give them food and water.
Today, Mullen says he keeps about 100 peafowl and 700 pheasants on his farm, and sells about 75 peafowl a year to people across Canada.
While there are a few hundred people in Alberta who own peafowl, there are maybe 10 or so who breed them in any significant number, said Shelan Sekora, president of the Prairie Ornamental Avicultural Association. Most people get them for their looks.
“It’s just the beauty of them,” she says.
“They’re one of the most stunning birds you can have.”
Peafowl originally came from Asia, Mullen says. While there are now hundreds of breeds out there, each with different coloration, the one most people are familiar with is the India Blue, which is known for its vibrant blue head and neck, grey and brown-barred wings, metallic green tail feathers, and blue and brown eye spots.
Mullen says he raises five varieties of peafowl on his farm and keeps them in a large, open area behind his home that’s covered in netting. The birds scamper about as he enters it, a few fluttering up to perches overhead.
“That guy up there is a Black-shouldered peacock,” Mullen says, indicating a black-winged, midnight-blue-breasted bird standing on a bar, its tail feathers flowing off its back like an emerald waterfall. Scampering towards the back of the pen is its female equivalent, which is white with black splotches and lacks the long tail of the male.
A bit to the right is a male Pied peacock, which is brilliant blue with white spots and in the midst of wooing a female on the other side of a fence. The male struts its stuff, pauses, slowly raises its tail feathers creating a fountain of teal and green, and lets loose with a piercing “Oo-WAH!”
The female appears to ignore him.
Mating attempts like this happen every spring in a peafowl’s adult life, Mullen says. It’s a noisy experience, as the males make mating calls and displays all afternoon. After mating, a peahen will lay a clutch of creamy white eggs the size of a rubber ball on the ground and incubate them for about 28 days.
The chicks that hatch are typically yellow-brown and make adorable peeping sounds. Mullen typically keeps them in a heated shed for their first few months, moving them to bigger ones as they grow, eventually letting them outdoors. After about eight years, the birds are mature and ready for sale.
A mature peafowl will typically sell for less than $300, says Trent Smith, who raises peafowl and other birds near Darwell. Some rare breeds can sell for thousands.
Given the number of years you pour into each bird, this isn’t exactly a money-making exercise, Mullen says.
“It’s a great way to waste money!” he quips.
Can I get one?
Peafowl can be kept as pets, and if you socialize them enough, will eat out of your hand and go for walks with you, Mullen says. He knows one owner who’d trained his birds to knock on his door for treats.
But they are definitely not urban birds, say Smith, Sekora and Mullen. Peafowl need a lot of room to roam – equivalent to a large backyard – and they make a lot of noise, especially in the spring.
“You can hear them for a good quarter-mile,” Mullen says.
Bylaw officials reached by the Gazette confirmed that peafowl are legal as pets in Sturgeon, but not in St. Albert, where they are considered livestock. They might be legal in Morinville under the town’s unique animal permit program, but the odds of bylaw officers actually approving a peafowl in town are slim for the reasons stated above.
If you want to keep peafowl, you’ll need a barn of some sort for them in the winter with wide bars for them to perch on, Smith says. They’re strong flyers, so you’ll need fencing and overhead nets to keep them from escaping. Expect to spend at least $60 a year per bird on food. Most will live about 20 years, or 50 if they receive lavish care.
Tickets for the farm tour are $12 and include breakfast and lunch. Call 780-939-8349 by Aug. 3 to register.