Peacocks in Portugal

Peacocks form a (usually) welcome part of the landscape in many Portuguese parks. Contrast them with a different bird that has become a coastal plague. Both are the products of human intervention.

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Peacocks in Portugal
If you’re ever sitting on a bench in a public park in Portugal, you may find your peaceful reverie interrupted by a shrieking bird call that only be described as something in between the sound of a cat being strangled and your grandpa gargling.  You might be surprised to discover that this excruciating noise comes from the most majestic of animals: the peacock.
Native to India, where it is the national bird and has long been an important part of Hindu mysticism and artistic expression, peacocks in Portugal first appeared during the Age of Exploration, when expeditions brought the impressively feathered birds back home as an exotic novelty.  Peacocks famously wandering the grounds of the Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon delight tourists, but the birds can be found in public parks of lesser renown throughout Portugal. 
Peacock in Evora
Peacock in Évora
Peacock in Porto
Peacock in Porto
In India, where peacocks once made for a rare and delightful sighting, peacock populations have now increased significantly as the result of a decrease in the populations of their natural predators.  This is especially true when peacocks live in enclosed spaces that predatory animals cannot access, which is also the case in Portugal.  Larger, and better funded, cities like Lisbon and Porto generally feed and/or monitor peacocks in public areas to make sure flocks are healthy and don’t overrun the territory, relocating them, if necessary.  However, though peacocks are widespread in Portugal, this degree of monitoring is not consistently applied.  Peacocks occasionally migrate out of parks and into city streets, and if there are enough of them, the loud wails of their calls can wake up nearby residents at all hours of the night, prompting complaints.
As a rule, city governments in Portugal view the presence of peacocks as an attractive draw for visitors to public parks, especially tourists, who find them enchanting and rare.  Peacocks dwell primarily on the ground and can only fly short distances, which makes it less difficult to contain them, so if they do become a nuisance, it can be humanely managed.  Unfortunately, peacocks have no fear of humans, so they wander freely among them where uninformed individuals think it’s OK to feed the peacocks their leftover sandwiches.  (Spoiler: it’s not.)   
Humans feeding birds is nothing new, but inadvertently feeding them has become a major problem in Portugal.  This leads us to an entirely different bird in this article’s aviary: seagulls.
Seagulls invading Portuguese coastal cities – and even some in the interior of the country, far from the ocean – have been called a praga, or plague.  Seagulls carry infectious diseases that can impact human health, such as Salmonella and E. coli, and can be transmitted via their waste.   Water contamination from seagull droppings has even been responsible for some beach closures.  And you can’t walk along practically any waterfront in Portugal without seeing a collection of seagulls – and pigeons – crowding around municipal trash cans.
seagull eating
Illegally park your Mercedes, blocking the sidewalk? Be prepared for it to make a nice seagull restaurant.
Until the early 2000s, seagulls were mostly confined to their natural habitat on the Portuguese coast.  After that point, the birds began nesting inside coastal cities with greater frequency, the city of Porto being particularly hard hit.  Overflowing trash bins and food falling off packed café tables on riverfront esplanades have provided enough sustenance that the seagulls don’t need to spend much time at sea hunting for dinner.  Plus, huge quantities of discarded fish that commercial fishing boats don’t find it economical to process and just dump into the water near urban ports provide ample, and easy, sustenance close to the seagulls’ new nesting location, Portuguese rooftops instead of coastal cliffs.
Porto, Lisbon, and other cities have implemented various environmental programs to control seagull reproduction on land, but it’s an uphill battle.  Take pigeons, which also inundate urban areas of Portugal. Compared to seagulls, pigeons are dull bulbs.  If you’re picnicking at the beach, a pigeon will waddle over to your towel and try to catch some crumbs before you shoo it away, then it will waddle back over to your towel and try to catch some crumbs before you shoo it away again, and this waddle/shoo cycle can continue indefinitely without the pigeon ever changing strategy.  But seagulls are crafty.  You shoo a seagull away once, and it will wait until you’ve turned your back to snatch something off your plate.  Simple shooing is not a deterrent and seagulls have been known to be aggressive, especially when a piece of Portuguese croissant on the ground is at stake.
The excess number of seagulls in Portuguese cities can be attributed in no small part to the rise in tourism, but the overall story here, whether we’re talking about squawking peacocks waking up their human neighbors or industrial quantities of seagull droppings blanketing cities, is clear:  these are human-caused problems. 
As a visitor to Portugal, the best thing you can do to help is to make sure your trash goes into a covered garbage container.  Please do not shove your single-use plastic bottle that none of us is supposed to be using anyway on top of an already overflowing bin.  And for the love of God, do not feed the birds.  Personally, I don’t have the heart to tell a lonely 90-year-old Portuguese senhora sprinkling breadcrumbs to a gaggle of pigeons, seagulls, and peacocks she calls her “friends” that she’s making a bad problem worse, but I will tell you, dear reader: não alimente pombos e gaivotas.
Sign dont feed the birds
“Do not feed pigeons and seagulls” sign, generically translated as “Do not feed animals” as if there were any other animals to feed at a marina besides pigeons and seagulls. Image source: Diário do Algarve
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