A raucous ornament – the peafowl

Some birds are beautiful, some are striking, some are notorious…….and this peacock is all three. There are three species of peafowl, the Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus), which lives mainly in Burma and is exceedingly rare, another being the African Congo Peafowl (Afropavo congensis) is in its own genus, and the third, pictured here, the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus). This is the bird which has adorned formal gardens in Britain and beyond for centuries, rather like a living jewel. At least, the male peacock has, for like most members of the pheasant family, the Phasianidae, the male is brilliantly coloured, whereas the female – the peafowl – is much less colourful, and lacks the magnificent tail feathers of the male. Just in case you were wondering, the young of the species is called – yes – a peachick!

The Indian Peafowl is, needless to say, the national bird of India, being thought as symbolising joy, beauty and grace. It is protected by law, namely, the Indian (Wildlife) Protection Act, 1972.  A magnificent ‘Peacock Throne’ was made for the Mughal Emporers of India, adorned with hundreds of rubies and emeralds. However, the Persian ruler Nader Shah Afshari invaded India in 1738 and bore the throne away with him. Thereafter, the Persian royal seat was known as the Peacock Throne.

As you can see from the photograph, taken in the grounds of Ellingham Hall, Northumberland, the mix of brilliant blues and greens on the bird’s neck and chest feathers is quite stunning, and rivalled in nature only by some of the Birds of Paradise. The display of the peacock in front of the female, or to warn others, consists of the fanning of masses of elongated tail coverts, which have the unusual ‘eye’ pattern so distinctive of the breed. These are the feathers so prized by Victorian and Edwardian ladies for their hats, and for decoration. The iridescence is caused by tiny changes in the physical shape of the edges of the feathers, giving rise to an optical interference phenomenon.

The Indian Peacock has been carefully bred over many generations, until examples of white peafowl now occur. These are NOT albino individuals (their eyes are not red) as their cells cannot make any pigment, not just melanin. I have a photograph of my father, standing alongside what is known as a leucistic peacock at the Whipsnade Zoo facility of the Zoological Society of London, near Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

Ellingham Hall’s peacock was typical of the breed, being incredibly vocal in the early mornings. Their rasping screeching croak has to be heard to be believed. However, despite this, the Indian Peafowl is well worth the effort, providing you have the broad acres to support it (and to hide its calls from your irate neighbours!)

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