Previous Birds of the Month can be found here.
I have some concern in presenting you with the bird of May. I have been raised to regard the peacock as very bad luck. I do not touch their feathers and I do not allow their picture in my house. When I see friends wearing peacock feathers, or some garment with a pattern of peacock feathers, I have to stop myself suggesting that maybe they want to take off the scarf or earring or bracelet, right now. Maybe they want to throw it away, in fact? No?
I am not the only one to find the peacock suspect. In 1860, Charles Darwin wrote to a friend that “the sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.”
Darwin was working on his theory of evolution, and the peacock’s train seemed to disprove his observations. It’s beautiful, sure, but it’s not exactly a survival tool. It doesn’t make the peacock stronger or faster, or help him gather food. In fact, it is a nuisance to drag a 3.5ft train behind you all the time.
This anomaly prompted Darwin to develop the theory of sexual selection: that some traits emerge through the generations not because those traits have kept their owners alive long enough to reproduce, but because they are traits attractive to the opposite sex. The peacock’s magnificent, cumbersome train has grown more magnificent and cumbersome over millennia because females are drawn to the males who have particularly long train feathers with particularly large eye-spots.
Strictly speaking, ‘peacock’ refers only to the male bird. The generic name is ‘peafowl’, encompassing both the male peacock and the female peahen. However, the male so dwarfs the female in both literal and figurative stature that ‘peacock’ is often used informally to refer to both sexes. The peacock/fowl is a member of the family Phasianidae, which includes pheasants, partridges, chickens and quails. If you look hard at a pheasant, you can see the family resemblance:
Credit: Gary Noon
Peacocks hanging out with their chicken cousins, painted by Albertus Verhoesen, 1882
There are three species of peafowl: the green peafowl, native from Indonesia to Myanmar; the Congo peafowl, which lives only in the Congo and was unknown to Western naturalists until 1936; and the Indian or blue peafowl, which is native to South Asia but has spread throughout the world over the last three millennia, thanks to human interest in the species. The earliest record we have of peacocks moving west is in the Bible, where King Solomon imports the bird along with gold, silver, ivory and apes. That was in about 940 BC.
Most peafowl art, mythology and study relates to the Indian peacock, because it is much hardier, more widespread and more sociable than the green and the Congo. And most of the mythology around peacocks ignores the peahen and focuses on the male and its feathers.
The Indian peacock has several color variants. The most striking of these is the white, which looks rather like a peacock in a wedding dress:
The Indian peacock’s train consists of about 140 feathers. Around 100 of these have the ocelli, the ‘eyes’.
The remainder are longer and green, ending in a V-shape.
The train does not prevent the peacock from flying or running (over a short distance, a peacock can run faster than a human), but it can be a liability while roosting. In its natural habitat, the peacock’s main predator is the tiger. If a peacock doesn’t make sure to choose a branch high enough so that his train is well out the way, a tiger will catch its claws in the feathers and drag the peacock down.
This peacock will be safe from a tiger.
The peacock does not have his train the whole year round. Exact periods of growth and moulting depend on the climate; in his native India, the peacock’s train starts to grow each February, in time for the mating season, and moults in August.
During mating season, the bird will fan out his train and circle slowly so that he can be admired from all angles, ruffling the feathers a little as he does so.
Have you ever wondered what kind of structure supports this magnificent display? Wonder no longer:
That flame-shaped group of grey feathers is the peacock’s tail, and it helps keep his fanned train erect.
Generally, peahens pretend to ignore the peacock’s display. They continue to peck about for food on the ground and look very bored by the whole thing.
Peacocks are renowned not just for their jeweled body and feathers but for their ugly feet: large and knobbly, with spurs which they use in fighting. Their call is ugly too: a swooping, two-note wail. Myth links foot and call, saying that the peacock is so dazzled by his own beauty that he forgets his feet – and when he catches sight of them, he cannot help crying out in dismay.
In her book about the bird, Christine Jackson suggests that attitudes towards the peacock divide east from west, with eastern associations positive and western negative. In the east, peacocks have long been associated with divinity. They are a Hindu symbol of immortality, in part because they can eat poisonous snakes without being harmed. A peacock is the vahana (vehicle) of Murugan, god of war, wisdom and love.
Murugan and his consorts riding on a peacock which stands on a snake. By Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)
In the west, pride is the primary peacock association. The expression ‘proud as a peacock’ comes not just from the peacock’s fanned train but from the way he struts, holding himself stiffly as he goes – but you too might look a little stiff if you were carrying such a weight of feathers. The idea that the peacock’s feathers are bad luck is a European one – but not one that is widespread, however strongly I feel about it. It is unclear how the superstition developed, but the most likely explanation has to do with the resemblance between the feathers’ ocelli and the Evil Eye.
Jackson’s east-positive/west-negative divide breaks down slightly on closer inspection. In Java and Myanmar, there is a belief that peacocks will peck out the eyes of small children, mistaking them for the precious stones they like to swallow. In the Christian tradition, the peacock is often used to represent pride in depictions of the seven deadly sins – but it is also a symbol of the incorruptibility of Christ, since the bird’s flesh, when dried, does not rot.
One of the most famous peafowl-keepers of modern times is Flannery O’Connor, who at one point owned about 50 – although “owned” is not quite the right word. As she writes in her 1961 essay ‘Living with a Peacock’: “If I refer to them as ‘my’ peafowl, the pronoun is legal, nothing more. I am the menial, at the beck and squawk of any feathered worthy who wants service.” The essay is delightful but I come away from it feeling fonder of O’Connor than I do of peacocks. I do not love the peacock, and I will not welcome him and his ill-omened feathers into my heart and home. Nevertheless, it is good to know your enemy. And if I must have an avian enemy, I am glad that it is one which so imperiously demands respect.
Hannah Rosefield likes writing about books and birds. She lives in London and tweets.