For Wicomico man, royals of the bird hierarchy are an obsession

Dwayne Jones of Powellville known to all as 'The Peacock Man'

By Brice Stump
Posted 7/14/21

The night may have a thousand eyes, but at the Powellville home of Dwayne Jones, they also appear in daylight.

He can sense them watching him as he moves about his yard. They are shimmering, …

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For Wicomico man, royals of the bird hierarchy are an obsession

Dwayne Jones of Powellville known to all as 'The Peacock Man'

Posted

The night may have a thousand eyes, but at the Powellville home of Dwayne Jones, they also appear in daylight.

He can sense them watching him as he moves about his yard. They are shimmering, quivering, hypnotic eyes of browns and blues, blacks and greens.

They are the eyes, in feathers, of male peacocks. Jones has at least 150 of the birds, just part of his fowl collection

He has plenty of love in his heart for his feathered friends. Can you have too many chickens, geese, turkeys, peacocks, guineas or fan-tail pigeons?

Jones has at least 500.

The front porch of his Victorian-style home, along the Powellville-Willards Road, is the perfect setting for peacocks wanting to relax in the shade or take refuge during a storm.

For decades, motorists slow and stop to see them strutting up and down the railing. People take pictures. His peacocks are Powellville’s top tourist attraction.

“People are all the time stopping along the road and taking pictures of them,” he said. One peacock is especially pampered; after years of encouragement, it will get close enough to accept grain handouts from strangers who delight in seeing the bird up close.

Framed by bits of gingerbread along the porch roof, the collection of majestic birds make for an artistic composition in oils, watercolors and photographs.

A couple perch on the back of wicker chairs, staring intently into his living room window.  While it appears they are looking at the illuminated shade of a “Gone With The Wind” lamp on a table in front of the window, Jones thinks they are looking at their own reflections.

The vintage wicker porch set is a perch for about eight of the 20-pound, sharp-nailed birds. The considerable droppings requires Jones to periodically shovel the floor.

“They’ve taken over, made it their ‘peacock porch,’ ” he said with laughter.

 As for the prized angel-wing begonias he once had by the porch, well, they now exist as memories. “Peacocks will eat them right to the ground,” he said. “I can’t have a garden because they will clean that up, too. I think they get bored from time to time, and even eat the buds of the peonies.”

His geese are not without trying habits as well, chewing the wires off his mowers and gobbling up tire valve stems.

But birds and their habits are part of the landscape. There have been peacocks here for almost half a century.

“In the 1970s, my aunt’s husband’s brother had three peacocks in Parsonsburg and he turned them loose,” Jones said. “They were soon going through the neighborhood, getting on people’s cars, one of which belonged to a lawyer. He didn’t want to get in any trouble, being sued over these big peacocks, so my aunt called me up and wanted to know if I wanted them. I was about 25 years old at the time, and said ‘Yeah, I’ll take ’em,’ and ended up with ’em.”

Birds are a lifelong love for Jones.

“When he was a little boy, he put a bunch of turkey feathers in a corncob and put in behind the back waistband of his pants and ran around pretending to be a turkey,” said his 97-year-old uncle, Frank Jones.

As the years passed, Dwayne Jones added more peacocks and exotic fowl to his back yard. The peacocks especially caught his eye with their variety of colors and species. First it was a hobby, then almost a full-time job that was a transformation into an obsession. Now, 40 years later, the love of peacocks is still strong, and the focus of his life.

Peacocks, by sheer size and beauty, are self-appointed royals in the fowl hierarchy, and each has their own personality and temperament, Jones said.

“Some are tame, some won’t let you come near ’em, other want you to be close to them. Some will eat out of my hand,” he said.

And then there are the truly difficult to manage peacocks. One in particular is well remembered for his “take charge” attitude.

“He was mean. He ran my neighbors into their houses and even ran my grandmother. She walked along the road for exercise. He would set up on the peak of my roof and watch her. When she was walking towards Willards, she was fine, but when she turned around to head home, he would fly to her and run her up her lane. My grandmother told my nephew that if he’d kill him, she’d give him $5. She said she’d bury him and that they’d keep the deal as their little secret.”

The bird escaped his pending fate when he caught the eye of Kirk Burbage.

“Years ago, when Kirk, the funeral director in Berlin, was restoring historic Merry Sherwood, he wanted to have peacocks up there for show. He saw some he wanted, and noticed  the mean one’ had a particularly long and beautiful train. He insisted that he had to have it,” Jones said.

“I told Kirk he would fly on you and hurt you and was so mean. Kirk named him Freddy Krueger. So off he went to Merry Sherwood. One day Freddy ran away. Walked up the Main Street sidewalk in Berlin, cut across Route 50 and was heading to Arby’s. Somehow they caught him, but he left again, and I don't know what happened to him,” Jones recounted.

Unfortunately, Freddy’s tough personality is not the exception to the rule.

“If some of those pea birds have that ‘green blood,’ they are wild and can get mean. There’s a collector in Preston, and I went over there to buy a special colored bird. She has several she bought when they were small from North Carolina that are green. One of them is so mean she has to take a net when she goes in the pen to keep him from jumping on her. I bought his brother and she said  ‘I’ve never had any trouble with him.’ Well, I’ll be darned if he hasn't turned on this spring. I have to watch him when I go in the pen because I think he’s getting up enough nerve to jump on me.”

Peacocks aren’t the only tough birds the collector deals with.

Those temperamental geese and ducks have grabbed his legs and painfully twisted and pinched his skin. Turkeys will indeed bite the hand that feeds them, too.

“If you put your hand under them, when they are setting, to check the eggs to see if they are hatching, they grab parts of my hand and twist it, making big red blisters. When geese have little ones, they can be bad, too,” he said.

Always ready to do battle, roosters, with their needle-sharp spurs, are always to be watched.

“Roosters will spur you, and it takes about a month to recover when they get you. I’ve had some roosters I dared not turn my back on. They’ll put a hurtin’ on you fast,” Jones said.

Peacocks, too, can inflict injuries with their spurs. But they balance their toughness with beauty. The stately birds are universally recognizable with their large, colored “eyes” in their exotic “trains,” as fanciers call them, or fans. The stunning display is not tail feathers, Jones explained, but feathers on the back near the tail.

“When they are trying to get the attention of the females, they keep their fan tails up, just like turkeys,” he said.

The males can also rattle their feathers, the strong quivering, rustling sound also engineered to impress potential mates. By rapidly vibrating his fan, the peacock makes the dozens of “eyes” flutter as he struts and turns.

Summer marks the end of the breeding season and the end of the dazzling artwork in their feathers.

And beautiful as the feathers are, they, like the fleeting days of our youth, start molting from the birds by late June. By the end of July, their iconic trains vanish. Without their brilliant tail feathers, males look very much like hens. Beautiful iridescent feathers fall to the ground. He has picked them up by the basketful.

Gone are the days when neighbors would want feathers for pillows and mattresses. Now it’s a request for rooster tail feathers to make fishing lures.

By late summer the train begins to grow again. “It takes three years for male peacocks to have their longest trains,” he said.

What remains is their readily identifiable piercing and unsettling call. Jones’ uncle Frank lives nearby, and describes the sound like a pleading “Help! Help!”

One or two peacocks squawking in unison is loud. When 150 or so join in, the chorus is so loud, so strong, it feels like the sound is passing right through your body.

“One thing peacocks don't like are noises,” Jones said. “They get upset quick if a truck does by with a loud muffler or something banging on it.”

Any unfamiliar noise startles them, and a rousing, almost deafening, crescendo of “help, help,” sounds the alarm.

From the trees, where they roost year around, they have a good view of traffic and strangers. “They particularly don’t like dogs. Soon as they see one, the all start yellin’ and fly into the trees, or on top of the house. I have had dogs break in and kill birds, so the peacocks are petrified by the sight of a dog.”

A devoted fancier must also keep an eye out for other predators such as foxes, raccoons, hawks – as well as skunks.

“One time, I had almost 100 fan-tail pigeons, and, even though they have a shed to go into, they come out to eat. I noticed that the food wasn't leaving as fast as it should. I went in the shed and found about 30 pigeons, but I picked up almost five feed bags, that hold 50 pounds of feed, of pigeon parts. A darn skunk got in there and killed all those pigeons.”

Defending the flocks against predators is not without risks.

“I was going out to the pens one evening and an aggressive raccoon ran me up the porch and I had to run through the door, slamming it behind me,” he said.

By the time he got his gun, it was gone.

On another occasion, alarmed by “hollerin’ ” of the chickens and peacocks, Jones saw three raccoons trying to gain access through the wire mesh covering the top of a pen. Again, he grabbed his gun and fired three shots, aiming down from his top porch step. The raccoons scattered.

“You know what I’d done? I had killed a goose and I had killed a peacock. That made me sick.”

Snakes also take a toll on his birds. “I found a black snake last week trying to eat baby pigeons. I grabbed him, swung him around my head a few times and slung him into the field. One week I caught five in the pigeon house.”

Then, too, there are squabbles between neighbors. There are routine brawls between the peacocks and turkeys. “They never make up. Next day they start again. Sometimes the fights get serious.”

In the background, a chorus of contented clucking chickens, crowing roosters, honking and hissing geese add to the scene.

Some birds make visitors laugh, particularly plump, white geese, which look like large, exploded feather pillows. They are eye-catching, seldom-seen Sebastopol geese.

They scout the barnyard along with Pomeranian geese (gray and white and tan and white colors) with their distinctive pink beaks and beige- and caramel-colored feathers.

With them are American buff geese and Giant Dewlap Toulouse geese, gray and buff colors, from French stock.

Jones has Polish chickens with a crested head, or “topknots,” of wildly arranged, rust-colored feathers that bear an uncanny resemblance to the coiffure of singer Tina Turner. “That’s what I call ’em, Tina Turner chickens,” he said, laughing.

With their wild ’do, beady dark eyes and determined stare, they simply make you smile and laugh.

Then there are the special colored turkeys that strut and dance in the yard — Blue Slate and Bourbon Red. The Royal Palms are mostly white with black-edged feathers. Others distinctive are blue and black mottled specimens.

There are also guinea fowl in shades of pearl, lavender, chocolate, coral blue, brown, sky-blue, purples and tan.

Muscovy ducks appear in blues, blacks, chocolates, silver, blue fawn and ripple (waves of shade) and buff.

Despite the visual explosion of plumage colors, the peacocks remain his pride and joy. It is not just the traditional India Blue peacocks, but the Spaldings (the largest of the peacocks), Cameos (tan shades), pied (two or more colors of) purples, greens, bronzes, whites, opals, oaten (black shoulder Cameos) pied black shoulders, white-eyed (white eyes in the tail feathers) hazel and violet.

The color palette among the birds is completed with fan-tail pigeons with red-check, black- and red-accented saddles, or shoulders.

All are individually coddled, pampered and catered to as much as 500 fowl can be by one man. The guineas and turkeys have no fear of headlining Thanksgiving or Christmas menus, but the Muscovy, well, they risk becoming duck a l’orange.

His passion is not without considerable work and expense. It takes lots of love and plenty of feed and money to keep things going.

“Every week and a half I get 30 bags of pellets,” he explained. “Each bag weighs 50 pounds. And every week and a half I get 17 50-pound bags of corn. That’s $480 for the pellets and $102 for the corn. The cash register is smoking when the bill comes to $582. This is in addition to mash or starter crumbles of feed for the littlest ones to get them started,” he said.

Then, too, there’s the drive to Mardela Springs every 10 days to pick up his preferred bird feed at Dave Kenney’s The Hardware Store.

Yes, he confessed, the mice also eat their share. “They have a field day here,” he said. Yet there are no cats on the property to patrol the buildings.

There was a time when he depended on cats inherited from his grandparents to keep mice at bay, until one very dark day, two years ago, when a feline went after him instead of the mice.

“Two years ago, one hot August — I had on shorts — I was getting gas for the mower. At the top of the back porch steps sat a female cat. She was always feisty, growled at me on occasion, but had been around for years.  To get down the step, I nudged her aside with my foot to make her move, so I could walk down. By the time I got to the bottom step, she flew into the air and bit me, latched onto my knee with her teeth and wouldn't let go.”

In an instant Jones knew this was not typical cat behavior. He grabbed the cat. She held firm. Then he whacked her with his hands. Still she held fast. As she sank her teeth into his knee, she gripped his other leg with her claws.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

“I started to choke her, to make her let go,” he recounted. She let go and he threw the cat way from his leg. A hand was bloody and he realized that she had clawed off a fingertip.

He grabbed a broom as she was rushing him for a second attack. He beat the crazed cat. “I thought she was dead,” he said.

By now blood was pouring from his knee and hand. He went inside and applied peroxide to the wounds. He started back down the porch steps again, and unbelievably, the cat rallied for yet a third attack.

 “ ‘You stay right there,’ ” I said, ‘I’m gonna get you this time.’ Went into the house and got the rifle and shot her. She didn’t get up no more.”

Jones threw the cat into a field and assumed it had been injured by a car which caused her to “go wild.”

His niece, Tammy Donaway, dressed his wounds and encouraged him to go the doctor or hospital. He wanted to resume his chores. She called and told him the cat may have been rabid. He ended up going to the hospital the next day.

“ ‘Can I get the cat?’ they asked me. They wanted to test it before I started rabies treatment. This was on Saturday and I had to call the health department. They came and got the cat and told me they’d call Monday with test results. They called. Cat tested positive for rabies.”

By the time he completed the treatment program, he was in the hospital for an appendectomy.

When it rains, it pours in Powellville.

He has been “down” on occasion and has relied on friends to handle the chores. “I hate asking them to do it,” he explained, “because it really is hard work, a tough job, I really can’t go anywhere because I don't want to ask anybody to do it because it’s so much work. But when my friends go on vacation I look after their birds or animals. But there’s a big difference between their dozen chickens and 500 feathered friends here.”

It is tricky, as help needs to know which birds get which feed. The peacocks get a specialized mixture of breeder and laying pellets, corn and wild birdseed. As for the special treats his peacocks routinely get, Jones doesn’t ask help to tackle that part of the job.

“I don’t know why, but they really like bread. I don’t think it has much flavor but for some reason they are crazy over it.”

As a treat, and as if he doesn’t have anything else to do, Jones hard-boils at least nine dozen eggs at a time, and peels them for the peacocks.

The eggs, he said, come from the “dungle.”

It is now a rarely heard, old-time colloquialism. Jones rolls it off his tongue as though it is universally recognized.

“My grandmother,” said Frank, “used that word all the time. Old people when I was growing up called the back part of the chicken lot ‘the dungle.’ So anything with feathers raised on the farm was from the dungle.”

With so many hens laying, there are plenty of eggs to be had, and Jones routinely rounds them up to give to friends and family. “I give away chicken, goose and duck eggs. I prefer guinea eggs, I really like them. They are small and mostly all yolk,” Jones said. “My grandmother liked them, too, but used duck eggs for baking pies and cakes because they were so rich.”

Serving fowl boiled eggs comes with family history. “When my mother and great-grandmother were raising turkeys, that’s what they started them off with, boiled eggs, because in those days you couldn't get the feed you needed from a store. They mixed the boiled eggs up with oats, even cornbread, to get the little turkeys going.”

Besides select menu fare, there’s the labor element of Jones’ hobby equation. When it snows, Jones has to shovel a network of paths to get to each pen and then remove enough snow to enable the pen gates to be opened so the birds can get out. To enable a truck to back into his drive to drop of bags of feed in the winter, Jones has shoveled the road to clear a wide opening so it could make deliveries.

“It’s bad in the wintertime. I have to go to each pen and break the ice in their watering bills, dump it out and refill them every day. It’s cold on me when I start, but I warm up fast doing all that.

“This really isn’t as much fun as it was when I was younger,” said the 69-year-old.

But the birds help him stay in shape. Every day the flocks need water, and lots of it.

“I tote 20 five-gallon buckets of water all the way down to the last pen (which is about 300 feet from the house). People ask me why I don’t run a line or a hose down there, but I tell them it gives me exercise. But that exercise program, totin’ that water every day, is getting old now,” he said, laughing. Each filled bucket weighs almost 43 pounds. He carries one in each hand to balance the weight as he walks the dirt path to the end of the yard.

This is a hobby, not a money-making venture, he noted.

There simply is “no money in it,” for the work and expense of maintaining his 500-bird collection. From time to time he sells all sizes of birds, breeders, and even eggs for patrons to hatch as “peachicks.”

“I have shipped grown peacocks in the mail. I have shipped them to Texas, Pennsylvania. Virginia and West Virginia, and other places. I put them in big cardboard boxes and off they go. Used to be, when you mailed them, the buyer got them the next day but I’d be afraid to do that now. You hear stories of people ordering chicks, but don't get them until three or four days later and they are dead.”

 People will pay good money for special peacocks, Jones said, because there are always mutations of colors. Buyers from across the nation are eager to $3,000 plus for a unique color. “One pair of peacocks I sold a guy in North Carolina went to a zoo in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Though he’s a retiree, Jones days he can’t see ever really retiring from his hobby.

“If I had to downsize, I’d keep the peacocks, which can live to 29 years. I don’t mind the yellin’ ’cause I’m used to it,” he said. “But I wish the work wasn’t as hard. For some reason it’s getting harder as I get older,” he said, laughing.

It’s a unique love for The Peacock Man of Powellville.