The Very Reverend James Parks Morton is what you might call a spiritual eccentric.
During his tenure as dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, he commissioned some of the cathedral’s stained glass windows to include figures planting corn, bowling and broadcasting on the radio. He kept a Hudson River blue crab in a tank in a side chapel to remind people of the importance of their environment. He brought on tightrope walker Philippe Petit as the cathedral’s artist in residence—security guards used to see him crawling up the towers under cover of night.
So it was no surprise that when the Philadelphia Zoo found themselves with a surplus of Persian peacocks, they called Rev. Morton and asked if he’d like a few for the cathedral.
Twenty years later, the peacocks abide. The third generation now roams the cathedral’s imaginative grounds, preening, defending their feed from pigeons and studiously avoiding each other. (Apparently they don’t get along great.)
Since antiquity, peacocks have carried the weighty symbolism of immortality. This is partly due to the cyclical regrowth of their tail feathers, and also partly to the ancient belief that their dead bodies don’t decay.
And it’s true, they do have an entrancing effect, until you hear them screech at each other (think fingernails on a blackboard) or watch them destroy freshly planted flowers. It’s a reminder not to take the spiritual symbolism thing too seriously…which fits well with Rev. Morton’s own maxim that “the worst thing in the world is pompous clergy.”
Incidentally, since his retirement from the cathedral, Rev. Morton now serves as (among other things) chaplain to the Big Apple Circus.
Born at the Bronx Zoo, the peacocks are as tough as they come. Over the past 18 years, they have survived dog attacks, kidnap attempts, even the fire that took out the church’s north transept in 2001. Nearly all have died from natural causes…except the one who mysteriously disappeared right before Thanksgiving one year.
You’ll hear these dudes before you see them–their screams can outshrill any ambulance siren, especially when they’re defending their feed against opportunistic pigeons. But if you’re waiting around for a tailfeather display, you could be there a long time. These birds do what they want when they want, and don’t care how far you came to see them.
The two blue peacocks are named Jim and Harry. This one is Phil. He has leucism, the same condition that results in white tigers. Don’t feel bad for him for being different; he’s secure. He even has his own Twitter account: @CathedralPhil.