Is there a more ostentatious bird than the male of the Indian peafowl, the Peacock? I was introduced to this species at a very young age. Due to its popularity as an ornamental bird and its readiness to breed in captivity, Peafowl can be found in zoos, parks and gardens around the world. As with all species of captive wildlife, the bird achieves new levels of magnificence when seen in its natural habitat. I was fortunate to see, and photograph the national bird of India, wild in the National Parks of India and Sri Lanka.
I had become so accustomed to seeing them in captivity that I was taken by surprise when I saw my first wild bird. I hadn’t imagined them as a wild bird. Even the local pub where I grew up kept peacocks as a beer garden attraction. I loved the exotic call that they bellowed out, starting at sunrise and continuing throughout the day. It was this call that ultimately led to them being sold by the pub landlord, due to complaints about the noise from the neighbours.
My first experience of wild Peafowl came in India, while on safari in Ranthambhore National Park. The exotic cry in the dusty amber glow of the early morning sun set the heart racing; it was the first reminder of the morning that I was in the land of the Royal Bengal Tiger. Whilst beautiful in the morning light, he was a sorry looking chap, having lost the finery of his tail feathers. Still a magnificent sight, but a shadow of the bird that he could be.
The peacock has captured the imagination of humans and, indeed the gods since the beginning of time. The splendid bird features in the religious writings of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity as well as in Greco-Roman mythology. The iridescent light that fluoresced from the feathers was seen to be beauty from another realm, and the eyes of the display feather suggested all seeing wisdom. The bird is associated with compassion and the eternal life of resurrection. It is frequently depicted in art and architecture and the feathers have been used in ceremonial dress.
I encountered the importance of the peacock in Indian culture in the City Palace of Jaipur. The Northeast Peacock Gate is one of four courtyard gates, representing the four seasons and honouring Hindu gods. The Peacock Gate represents autumn and is dedicated the the god Vishnu, the great protector. The artwork is an extraordinary, intricate representation, but as is always the case when art represents nature, it falls short of capturing the beauty of the real peacock, as does this photographer.
A trip to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka presented me with my next peafowl encounter. In prime condition and full breeding plumage, these royal birds illuminated the grasslands, not just with their beauty but also with their bold personalities and extravagant displays.
Members of the pheasant family, there are 3 distinct species of peafowl:
- The Indian peafowl (India and Sri Lanka)
- The Green peafowl (Myanmar, Java and Indochina)
- The Congo peafowl (endemic to the Congo Basin in Africa)
The Indian peafowl is a large bird, weighing in at up to 6 Kg (13 lbs.) with a body length of up to 130 cm. (50 inches) and a tail train of over 1.5 meters (over 5 ft.). With the tail length taken in to consideration, this bird is a spectacular sight when in flight. In the wild, peafowl live for up to 20 years, assuming that their pretentious mating display does not attract the attention of tigers, leopards, jackal and the many other predators that stalk their native habitats. The peacock is not without means to defend itself, though. He is equipped with a powerful, sharp tooth like spur on the back of the leg, about 2.5 cm (1 inch) above the feet. These spurs are handy for scraps with other males or intimidating smaller predators but arguably no match for a tiger or leopard.
The peahen, perhaps unfairly, receives little attention from the photographer’s lens. She is usually stood alongside one of the most mesmerising birds on the planet. It is difficult to break the gaze from the peacock, even when he is not displaying. The peahen is, though, a beautiful bird in her own right. When placed alongside other robust ground dwelling birds around the world, such as pheasant, turkey and the various bush fowl, her iridescent green neck and spatulate crown feathers make her a match for any of them. We must also respect the fact that the peacock’s splendour has been designed for her benefit; she judges the grandeur of finery and splendour of the dance performance of this Prima Uomo.
The display sequence below was photographed from an open-top jeep. The stage was the dusty track; the theatre was Yala National Park. The peacock was just raising his extravagant train to present a fan of a hundred eyes, as we arrived to take our seats in the front row. His grandiose light show, equal to any firework display, was a captivating performance. The hundred eyes shimmered and sparkled as he vibrated his fan. Feathers swished and rustled as a field of corn does on a breezy day.
Recent research by Angela Freeman and James Hare of the University of Manitoba, Canada has discovered that the vibrating of the tail feathers creates a low pitch ‘infrasound’ below that which can be heard by the human ear but can be detected by other peafowl.
The performance, not for want of effort on the peacock’s part, ended unsuccessfully. Perhaps it was the first of the morning and the peahen wanted to keep her options open. It is her prerogative and she must find the strongest male to sire her offspring.
We were fortunate to see many peacock displays over the course of the day but it was the front row seats for this one made it an unforgettable experience. As the day came to an end, the sinking sun reflected the earth’s amber hue into the Sri Lankan sky. The peacocks left their stage for the night, preferring the safety of the trees. As the dying embers of light faded, only that familiar and yet exotic sound of the peacock broke the silence behind us as we left the park to the creatures of the night.
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