The peafowl include three species of birds in the genera Pavo and
Afropavo of the
Phasianidae family, the pheasants and their allies.
There are two Asiatic species: the blue or
Indian peafowl originally
of the Indian subcontinent; and the green peafowl of Southeast Asia;
and one African species, the Congo peafowl, native only to the Congo
Basin. Male peafowl are known for their piercing call and their
extravagant plumage. The latter is especially prominent in the Asiatic
species, who have an eye-spotted "tail" or "train" of covert feathers
which they display as part of a courtship ritual. The term peacock is
properly reserved for the male; the female is known as a peahen, and
the immature offspring are sometimes called peachicks.
The functions of the elaborate iridescent coloration and large "train"
of peacocks have been the subject of extensive scientific debate.
Charles Darwin suggested they served to attract females, and the showy
features of the males had evolved by sexual selection. More recently,
Amotz Zahavi proposed in his handicap theory that these features acted
as honest signals of the males' fitness, since less fit males would be
disadvantaged by the difficulty of surviving with such large and
Evolution and sexual selection
1.2.1 Female choice
1.2.2 Food courtship theory
1.2.3 Natural selection
Plumage colours as attractants
1.2.5 Redundant signal hypothesis
4 Cultural significance
4.1 Indian peafowl
5 Depictions in culture
8 External links
A leucistic Indian peacock
Video analysis of the mechanisms behind the display
The Indian peacock has iridescent blue and green plumage, mostly
metallic blue and green. But the green peacock has green and bronze
body feathers. In both species females are as big as males but lack
the train and the head ornament. The peacock "tail," known as a
"train," consists not of tail quill feathers, but highly elongated
upper tail coverts. These feathers are marked with eyespots, best seen
when a peacock fans his tail. Both sexes of all species have a crest
atop the head. The Indian peahen has a mixture of dull grey, brown,
and green in her plumage. The female also displays her plumage to ward
off female competition or signal danger to her young.
The green peafowl differs from the
Indian peafowl in that the male has
green and gold plumage and black wings with a sheen of blue. Unlike
the Indian peafowl, the green peahen is similar to the male, only
having shorter upper tail coverts, a more coppery neck, and overall
Congo peacock male does not display his covert feathers, but uses
his actual tail feathers during courtship displays. These feathers are
much shorter than those of the Indian and green species, and the
ocelli are much less pronounced. Females of the Indian and African
species are dull grey and/or brown.
Chicks of both sexes in all the species are cryptically coloured. They
vary between yellow and tawny, usually with patches of darker brown or
light tan and "dirty white" ivory.
Occasionally, peafowl appear with white plumage. Although albino
peafowl do exist, this is quite rare, and almost all white peafowl are
not, in fact, albinos; they have a different condition called leucism,
which causes an overall reduction in different types of pigment. This
can result in the complete lack of coloration of their plumage, while
preserving normal eye colour. By contrast, true albino peafowl have a
complete lack of melanin, resulting in the albino's characteristic red
or pink eyes.
Leucistic peachicks are born yellow and become fully
white as they mature.
Iridescence and Structural coloration
As with many birds, vibrant iridescent plumage colours are not
primarily pigments, but structural colouration. Optical interference
Bragg reflections based on regular, periodic nanostructures of the
barbules (fiber-like components) of the feathers produce the peacock's
colours. Slight changes to the spacing of these barbules result in
different colours. Brown feathers are a mixture of red and blue: one
colour is created by the periodic structure and the other is created
by a Fabry–Pérot interference peak from reflections from the outer
and inner boundaries. Such structural coloration causes the
iridescence of the peacock's hues. Interference effects depend on
light angle rather than actual pigments.
Evolution and sexual selection
Charles Darwin suggested in
On the Origin of Species
On the Origin of Species that the
peafowl's plumage had evolved through sexual selection. He expanded
upon this in his second book, The Descent of Man and Selection in
Relation to Sex.
The sexual struggle is of two kinds; in the one it is between
individuals of the same sex, generally the males, in order to drive
away or kill their rivals, the females remaining passive; whilst in
the other, the struggle is likewise between the individuals of the
same sex, in order to excite or charm those of the opposite sex,
generally the females, which no longer remain passive, but select the
more agreeable partners.
Sexual selection is the ability of male and female organisms to exert
selective forces on each other with regard to mating activity. The
strongest driver of sexual selection is gamete size. In general, eggs
are bigger than sperm and females produce fewer gametes than males.
This leads to eggs being a bigger investment, and therefore to females
being choosy about the traits that will be passed on to her offspring
by males. The peahen's reproductive success and the likelihood of
survival of her chicks is partly dependent on the genotype of the
mate. Females generally have more to lose when mating with an
inferior male due to her gametes being more costly than the male's.
Peacock (seen from behind) displaying to attract peahen in foreground
Multiple hypotheses attempt to explain the evolution of female choice.
Some of these suggest direct benefits to females, such as protection,
shelter, or nuptial gifts that sway the female's choice of mate.
Another hypothesis is that females choose mates with good genes. Males
with more exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics, such as
bigger, brighter peacock trains, tend to have better genes in the
peahen's eyes. These better genes will directly benefit her
offspring, as well as her fitness and reproductive success. Runaway
selection also seeks to clarify the evolution of the peacock's train.
In runaway sexual selection, linked genes in males and females code
for sexually dimorphic traits in males, and preference for those
traits in females. The close spatial association of alleles for
loci involved in the train in males, and for preference for more
exuberant trains in females, on the chromosome (linkage
disequilibrium) causes a positive feedback loop that exaggerates both
the male traits and the female preferences. Another hypothesis is
sensory bias, in which females have a preference for a trait in a
non-mating context that becomes transferred to mating. Multiple
causality for the evolution of female choice is also possible.
Work concerning female behaviour in many species of animals has sought
to confirm Darwin's basic idea of female preference for males with
certain characteristics as a major force in the evolution of
species. Females have often been shown to distinguish small
differences among potential mates, and to prefer mating with
individuals bearing the most exaggerated characters. In some
cases, those males have been shown to be more healthy and vigorous,
suggesting that the ornaments serve as markers indicating the males'
abilities to survive and, thus, their genetic qualities.
The peacock's train and iridescent plumage are perhaps the best-known
example of traits believed to have arisen through sexual selection,
though with some controversy. Male peafowl erect their trains to
form a shimmering fan in their display to females. Marion Petrie
tested whether or not these displays signalled a male's genetic
quality by studying a feral population of peafowl in Whipsnade
Wildlife Park in southern England. The number of eyespots in the train
predicted a male's mating success. She was able to manipulate this
success by cutting the eyespots off some of the males' tails:
females lost interest in pruned males and became attracted to
untrimmed ones. Males with fewer eyespots, and thus with lower mating
success, suffered from greater predation. She allowed females to
mate with males with differing numbers of eyespots, and reared the
offspring in a communal incubator to control for differences in
maternal care. Chicks fathered by more ornamented males weighed more
than those fathered by less ornamented males, an attribute generally
associated with better survival rate in birds. These chicks were
released into the park and recaptured one year later. Those with
heavily ornamented feathers were better able to avoid predators and
survive in natural conditions. Thus, Petrie's work has shown
correlations between tail ornamentation, mating success, and increased
survival ability in both the ornamented males and their offspring.
A peacock in flight: Zahavi argued that the long train would be a
Furthermore, peafowl and their sexual characteristics have been used
in the discussion of the causes for sexual traits.
Amotz Zahavi used
the excessive tail plumes of male peafowls as evidence for his
"Handicap Principle". Since these trains are likely to be
deleterious to the survival of an individual (as the brilliant plumes
are visible to predators and the longer plumes make escape from danger
more difficult), Zahavi argued that only the fittest males could
survive the handicap of a large train. Thus, a brilliant train serves
as an honest indicator for females that these highly ornamented males
are good at surviving for other reasons, and are therefore preferable
mates. This theory may be contrasted with Ronald Fisher's theory
(and Darwin's hypothesis) that male sexual traits are the result of
initially arbitrary aesthetic selection by females.
In contrast to Petrie's findings, a seven-year Japanese study of
free-ranging peafowl concluded that female peafowl do not select mates
solely on the basis of their trains. Mariko Takahashi found no
evidence that peahens preferred peacocks with more elaborate trains
(such as with more eyespots), a more symmetrical arrangement, or a
greater length. Takahashi determined that the peacock's train was
not the universal target of female mate choice, showed little variance
across male populations, and did not correlate with male physiological
condition. Adeline Loyau and her colleagues responded that alternative
and possibly central explanations for these results had been
overlooked. They concluded that female choice might indeed vary in
different ecological conditions.
Food courtship theory
Merle Jacobs' food-courtship theory states that peahens are attracted
to peacocks for the resemblance of their eye spots to blue
It has been suggested that a peacock's train, loud call, and fearless
behaviour have been formed by natural selection (not sexual
selection), and served as an aposematic display to intimidate
predators and rivals.
Plumage colours as attractants
Eyespot on a peacock's train feather
A peacock's copulation success rate depends on the colours of his
eyespots (ocelli) and the angle at which they are displayed. The angle
at which the ocelli are displayed during courtship is more important
in a peahen's choice of males than train size or number of ocelli.
Peahens pay careful attention to the different parts of a peacock's
train during his display. The lower train is usually evaluated during
close-up courtship, while the upper train is more of a long-distance
attraction signal. Actions such as train rattling and wing shaking
also kept the peahens' attention.
Redundant signal hypothesis
Although an intricate display catches a peahen's attention, the
redundant signal hypothesis also plays a crucial role in keeping this
attention on the peacock's display. The redundant signal hypothesis
explains that whilst each signal that a male projects is about the
same quality, the addition of multiple signals enhances the
reliability of that mate. This idea also suggests that the success of
multiple signalling is not only due to the repetitiveness of the
signal, but also of multiple receivers of the signal. In the peacock
species, males congregate a communal display during breeding season
and the peahens observe. Peacocks first defend their territory through
intra-sexual behaviour, defending their areas from intruders. They
fight for areas within the congregation to display a strong front for
the peahens. Central positions are usually taken by older, dominant
males, which influences mating success. Certain morphological and
behavioural traits come in to play during inter and intra-sexual
selection, which include train length for territory acquisition and
visual and vocal displays involved in mate choice by peahens.
Pavo cristatus vocalization
Problems playing this file? See media help.
In courtship, vocalisation stands to be a primary way for peacocks to
attract peahens. Some studies suggest that the intricacy of the "song"
produced by displaying peacocks proved to be impressive to peafowl.
Singing in peacocks usually occurs just before, just after, or
sometimes during copulation.
A green peafowl (Pavo muticus)
Peafowl are forest birds that nest on the ground, but roost in trees.
They are terrestrial feeders. All species of peafowl are believed to
be polygamous. In common with other members of the Galliformes, the
males possess metatarsal spurs or "thorns" on their legs used during
intraspecific territorial fights with other members of their kind.
Peafowl are omnivores and eat mostly plant parts, flower petals, seed
heads, insects and other arthropods, reptiles, and amphibians. Wild
peafowl look for their food scratching around in leaf litter either
early in the morning or at dusk. They retreat to the shade and
security of the woods for the hottest portion of the day. These birds
are not picky and will eat almost anything they can fit in their beak
and digest. They actively hunt insects like ants, crickets and
termites; millipedes; and other arthropods and small mammals.
Indian peafowl also eat small snakes.
Domesticated peafowl may also eat bread and cracked grain such as oats
and corn, cheese, cooked rice and sometimes cat food. It is noticed by
Peafowl enjoy protein rich food including larvae that
infest granaries, different kinds of meat and fruit, as well as
vegetables including dark leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, beans,
beets, and peas.
A peacock in a flask, "representing the stage in the alchemical
process when the substance breaks out into many colours", from the
Splendor Solis (1582)
In Hinduism, the Indian peacock is the mount of the Lord Kartikeya,
the god of war. A demon king, Surapadman, was split into two by
Karthikeya and the merciful lord converted the two parts as an
integral part of himself, one becoming a peacock (his mount) and
another a rooster adorning his flag. The peacock displays the divine
shape of Omkara when it spreads its magnificent plumes into a
full-blown circular form. Peacock feathers also adorn the crest of
Lord Krishna, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, one of the trimurti. In the
Sinhalese zodiac, peacock is the third animal zodiac of the Sinhalese
people of Sri Lanka. Peacocks (often a symbol of pride and vanity)
were believed to deliberately consume poisonous substances in order to
become immune to them, as well as to make the colours of their
resplendent plumage all the more vibrant - seeing as so many poisonous
flora and fauna are so colourful this idea appears to have merit. The
Buddhist deity Mahamayuri is depicted seated on a peacock. Peacocks
are seen supporting the throne of Amitabha, the ruby red sunset
coloured archetypal Buddha of Infinite Light.
Ancient Greeks believed that the flesh of peafowl did not decay after
death, so it became a symbol of immortality. This symbolism was
adopted by early Christianity, thus many early Christian paintings and
mosaics show the peacock. The peacock is still used in the Easter
season, especially in the east. The 'eyes' in the peacock's tail
feathers symbolise the all-seeing Christian
God and – in some
interpretations – the Church. A peacock drinking from a vase is used
as a symbol of a Christian believer drinking from the waters of
eternal life. The peacock can also symbolise the cosmos if one
interprets its tail with its many 'eyes' as the vault of heaven dotted
by the sun, moon, and stars. By Christian adoption of old Persian and
Babylonian symbolism, in which the peacock was associated with
Paradise and the Tree of Life, the bird is again associated with
immortality. In Christian iconography, the peacock is often depicted
next to the Tree of Life.
Though the peafowl is native to India, in
peacock is seen as a guardian to royalty, and is often seen in
engravings upon the thrones of royalty. Nonetheless, using the peacock
as the symbol of royalty has an old and distinguished pedigree in
India too. Peacocks were believed to be immune to poison, even
deliberately consuming poisonous substances which made the resplendent
colours of their plumage all the more vibrant. The Buddhist "Goddess"
Mahamayuri is depicted with a peacock as her vehicle. The archetypal
Buddha Amitabha, the ruby red sunset coloured Buddha of Infinite Light
has peacocks adorning his throne. The first great dynasty unifying the
Indian sub-continent in the 3rd century BCE were known as the
"Maurya", lit. "of the peacock", named after the patriarch
Chandragupta Maurya. The word "Maurya" is derived from Sanskrit
"Mayura" (lit. peacock). The monarchy in
Iran is referred to as the
Melek Taus (Arabic: طاووس ملك; Persian: ملک
طاووس; Kurdish: Tawûsê Melek), the "Peacock Angel", is
Yazidi name for the central figure of their faith. The Yazidi
consider Tawûsê Melek an emanation of
God and a benevolent angel who
has redeemed himself from his fall and has become a demiurge who
created the cosmos from the cosmic egg. After he repented, he wept for
7,000 years, his tears filling seven jars, which then quenched the
fires of hell. In art and sculpture, Tawûsê Melek is depicted as a
In Hellenistic imagery, the Greek goddess Hera's chariot was pulled by
peacocks, birds not known to Greeks before the conquests of Alexander.
Alexander's tutor, Aristotle, refers to it as "the Persian bird". One
myth states that Hera's servant, the hundred-eyed Argus Panoptes, was
instructed to guard the woman-turned-cow, Io.
Hera had transformed Io
into a cow after learning of Zeus's interest in her.
Zeus had the
messenger of the gods, Hermes, kill Argus through eternal sleep and
free Io. According to Ovid, to commemorate her faithful watchman, Hera
had the hundred eyes of Argus preserved forever, in the peacock's
Among Ashkenazi Jews, the golden peacock is a symbol for joy and
creativity, with quills from the bird's feathers being a metaphor for
a writer's inspiration.
The peacock motif was revived in the
Renaissance iconography that
Hera and Juno, and on which European painters focused.
In 1956, John J. Graham created an abstraction of an 11-feathered
peacock logo for American broadcaster NBC. This brightly hued peacock
was adopted due to the increase in colour programming. NBC's first
colour broadcasts showed only a still frame of the colourful peacock.
The emblem made its first on-air appearance on 22 May 1956. India
adopted the peacock as its national bird in 1963 and it is part of the
National symbols of India. The current peacock logo, which has six
feathers, debuted in 1986. A stylised peacock in full display is the
logo for the Pakistan Television Corporation.
In some cultures, the peacock is a symbol of pride or vanity, due to
the way the bird struts and shows off its plumage.
Depictions in culture
Kartikeya with his wives in his peacock mount
"Peacock" by Merab Abramishvili
In the 1486 painting Annunciation with St. Emidius by Carlo Crivelli,
a peacock is sitting on the roof above the praying Virgin Mary.
A peacock served in full plumage (detail of the Allegory of Taste,
Hearing and Touch by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1618)
Abbott Thayer and Richard Meryman for Thayer's 1909 book,
wrongly suggesting that the peacock's plumage was camouflage
Common Pea Fowl, John Gould, c.1880 Brooklyn Museum
Syrian Bowl with Peacock Motif, c. 1200 Brooklyn Museum
During the Medieval period, various types of fowl were consumed as
food, with the poorer populations (such as serfs) consuming more
common birds, such as chicken. However, the more wealthy gentry were
privileged to less usual foods, such as swan, and even peafowl were
consumed. On a king's table, a peacock would be for ostentatious
display as much as for culinary consumption.
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Fowl Recipes". Medieval-Recipes.com. 2010. Retrieved 30 March
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Pavo cristatus (category)
Wikispecies has information related to Pavo
Look up peafowl in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Peafowl Varieties Database
Etymology of the word "peacock"
Peafowl videos, photos, and sounds on the Internet
"Behavioural Ecologists Elucidated How Peahens Choose Their Mates, And
Why", an article at Science Daily.
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Congo peacock (A. congensis)
Great argus (A. argus)
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Cheer pheasant (
Lady Amherst's pheasant
Lady Amherst's pheasant (C. amherstiae)
Golden pheasant (C. pictus)
Blue eared pheasant
Blue eared pheasant (C. auritum)
White-eared pheasant (C. crossoptilon)
Tibetan eared pheasant
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Brown eared pheasant
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Siamese fireback (L. diardi)
Edward's pheasant (L. edwardsi)
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Vietnamese pheasant (L. hatinhensis)
Hoogerwerf's pheasant (L. hoogerwerfi)
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Common pheasant (P. colchicus)
Green pheasant (P. versicolor)
Grey peacock-pheasant (P. bicalcaratum)
Bronze-tailed peacock-pheasant (P. chalcurum)
Palawan peacock-pheasant (P. emphanum)
Germain's peacock-pheasant (P. germaini)
Mountain peacock-pheasant (P. inopinatum)
Hainan peacock-pheasant (P. katsumatae)
Malayan peacock-pheasant (P. malacense)
Bornean peacock-pheasant (P. schleiermacheri)
Koklass pheasant (P. macrolopha)
Crested argus (R. ocellata)
Elliot's pheasant (S. ellioti)
Mrs. Hume's pheasant
Mrs. Hume's pheasant (S. humiae)
Mikado pheasant (S. mikado)
Copper pheasant (S. soemmerringi)
Reeve's pheasant (S. reevesi)
Blyth's tragopan (T. blythii)
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Western tragopan (T. melanocephalus)
Satyr tragopan (T. satyra)
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Red junglefowl (G. gallus)
Sri Lanka junglefowl
Sri Lanka junglefowl (G. lafayetii)
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Indian peafowl (P. cristatus)
Green peafowl (P. muticus)
Columbian sharp-tailed grouse
Greater prairie chicken
Heath Hen (extinct)
Attwater's prairie chicken
Lesser prairie chicken
Old World quail
100 living species in 32 genera
Birds in culture
In mythology and religion
Driven grouse shooting
In the arts
The Conference of the Birds
Ode to a Nightingale
To a Skylark
A History of British Birds
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The Ugly Duckling
In theatre and ballet
of the Tower of London
John James Audubon
John James Audubon (The Birds of America)
John Gerrard Keulemans
Roger Tory Peterson
Henry Constantine Richter
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
Category:Birds and humans
Dinosaurs in culture
Living things in culture
Fish in culture
Insects in culture
Mammals in culture
Reptiles in culture