The peacock (Pavo cristatus) is one of the most beautiful and colorful birds in the world. Technically, the name “peacock” refers only to the male peafowl. The female peafowl is called a “peahen.”
Peafowl and Relatives
The spectacular peafowl species that most people are familiar with is the Indian, or common, peafowl. Two other species of peafowl are the green “jungle” peafowl of Southeast Asia (which is similar to the Indian peafowl) and the Congo peafowl of Africa (which is not as fancy as the Indian peafowl).
The Indian peafowl belongs to the pheasant and partridge subfamily (Phasianinae) of the large family of birds that also includes turkeys, quail, and grouse (Phasianidae). Wild birds in North America that are believed to be closely related to the peafowl include the ring-necked pheasant, gray partridge, and chukar.
Where Peafowl Live
The wild Indian peafowl is native to dense, hilly forests in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In fact, it is the “national bird” of India.
Domestic (tame) peafowl are raised on farms and ranches and in parks and zoos around the world, including much of the United States. Small populations of feral peafowl (wild peafowl descended from domestic stock) live in parts of Hawaii, southern California, and Florida.
The Peafowl’s Body
The body of the male Indian peafowl (peacock) is about the size of a turkey, but its flowing train of feathers makes for a very long bird. The peacock’s total length may be more than seven feet—about five feet of which consist of the feathers of the train. A peacock weighs between 8 and 13 pounds.
An Indian peacock has a neck and breast that are bright, shiny blue, and a back that is metallic green. Its fancy train of feathers grows from the lower back, supported underneath by short tail feathers. The train typically has from 150 to 200 greenish feathers, each from four to five feet long. Near the end of each feather is a bright, bold spot (with blue, green, and other colors) that looks like an eye.
The peahen is smaller than the peacock and not nearly as colorful. The peahen’s body is mostly dull shades of brown, gray, and green, with only a short train. Both the peacock and the peahen have a crest of short feathers on the head.
People have bred domestic varieties of peafowl to be a number of different colors and color patterns.
The Indian peafowl forages on the ground during the daytime, eating just about anything it can fit in its beak. Among the many food items in its diet are insects, worms, snails, frogs, snakes, grasses, seeds, and various kinds of crops.
Wild Indian peafowl usually live in small groups. These birds are weak flyers, spending most of their time on the ground. Although they forage for food on the ground, they normally roost (rest and sleep) in tall trees at night. The height of the trees helps protect the peafowl from predators. To warn of danger, peafowl make loud shrieking and honking calls.
Courtship and Reproduction
The most interesting behaviors of Indian peafowl are their courtship rituals. Each spring, the peacocks use their colorful plumage to perform for the peahens. The peacock slowly struts in front of the peahens with his train feathers fully spread into an enormous, gorgeous fan. He faces the “ladies” and repeatedly shakes his fan, doing his best to impress them. He also makes a loud “kee-ow” call during courtship.
A peahen will mate with the male that impresses her the most. A peacock will mate with as many females as he is able to.
In the wild, a peahen typically lays three to eight pale brownish eggs in a shallow depression that she claws out of the ground. The depression is made in a protected spot, hidden by brush, tall grass, or other material. In captivity, a peahen may lay 10 or more eggs. The peahen sits on the eggs, incubating them, for about 28 days. The young “peachicks” then hatch. After hatching, the peachicks follow their mother around for several months, learning the best foods to eat.
In summer, after breeding season is over, peacocks shed their long train feathers. The feathers gradually grow back by the beginning of the next breeding season. Peafowl can breed when they are two to three years old. The fan of a peacock may become larger and larger for several years after it starts breeding.
The Indian peafowl can live for 20 to 24 years.
Peacocks have always been highly prized for their beauty. In ancient times, travelers brought these animals from their native land of India to display as ornamental birds in many other countries. Emperors, kings, and queens kept tame peacocks in elaborate gardens in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Persia (modern Iran), Israel, Greece, and other lands.
The Indian peafowl was first brought to Hawaii in 1860. It was brought to the continental United States first in 1879, in California.
Today, peacock feathers continue to be valued as decorations for homes and as accessories for such purposes as theatrical costumes, jewelry, and wedding displays. Many people consider peacock feathers to be symbols of good luck.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Peacock article, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.