Getting a Peacock’s-Eye View of Things
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN INDIA
IT ALL began when I chipped my way through the eggshell and stumbled into the realm of birdlife. I stood there blinking in the tropical sunlight, bewildered. It was all so strange, everything was frightening. Instinctively, I knew mama. I snuggled into her, underneath her protective wing. There I was safe, I was loved. To me mama appeared so strong, so confident, it made me feel secure.
Thus I spent the first few days of my life. Though I did not realize it at the time, I was a male peachick, and I had two brother peachicks and two sister peahens. So we were an average family of peafowl, since there are generally four to six eggs in a nest of peachicks.
And speaking of nests, I noted that the nest where I came on the scene was a depression scraped in the ground in the midst of a dense clump of undergrowth located in a wild open rural area. It was lined with twigs, leaves and grass—very comfortable and well hidden from lurking enemies. By observation I later learned that mama must have laid her five glossy pale-cream eggs here, each one about two and one-half inches long. Solicitously she sat on them for twenty-eight days until I broke upon the scene.
I understand that during my incubation an incident occurred that might well have resulted in my not being hatched at all. Our nest was located near fields of growing millet and barley, close to a small tributary of the river Jamuna. Nearby there was also a stretch of uncultivated land strewn with rocks and covered with wild grasses and jungle scrub. Dotted over the terrain were wild myrtle shrubs and acacia trees. It was late in the afternoon as the sun began its swift descent. All was still and very quiet.
Suddenly, a stealthy movement in the jungle scrub brought mama to full attention. With keen eyes penetrating the undergrowth, she spotted a wildcat on the prowl. She froze to the nest, as it were, while the hungry-looking creature drew nearer. Mama’s plumage merged with the background vegetation; she seemed invisible. The cat passed, stalking on toward the grainfields. Had mother been seen, it might well have been our end and hers, mother peahens refuse to abandon the nest even in the gravest danger.
We peachicks learn fast. We soon learned that mama was not the only mate that papa possessed. There were five of them! As a result, a peacock may father as many as twenty-five peachicks in one year—a normal state of affairs when seen from the peacock’s-eye view of things.
Our family belongs to a small flock of peafowl living in a section of the Rajasthan desert of north India, not far from Jaipur. I have lots of aunts and uncles and, being gregarious by nature, we like flock together. Often a number of families will share the same tree for roosting. However, during the breeding season all my uncles wander off in search of mates themselves.
Peafowl are wide awake at the first light of dawn, but, rather than fly down to the ground immediately, we prefer to take our time, descending from limb to limb, shattering the morning silence with our loud cries that sound like “may-awe.” Right away then we are interested in our breakfast cereals. Mama taught us chicks look for our favorite delicacies. Mainly we feed on grass and grains. We often spend entire days wreaking havoc in the grainfields. Because of our “sacred” status here, however, the village farmers endure our depredations with stoic fortitude. Fat, juicy insect steaks also figure on our menu, with here and there a tender lizard. Papa and mama even dine on small snakes! Probably not a relishing thought if you do not have the peacock’s-eye view of things.
When day is done, in the late afternoon, we have an early supper and then repair to our perches in the reverse procedure, slowly climbing the “stairs” until we reach a satisfactory roost. We get the reputation of making a lot of fuss and noise as we settle down for the night.
Peafowl Parents Share Responsibilities
Of my parents, papa was by far the most colorful personality. Mama, on the other hand, knew how to match colors too. She chose a dress that blended with her surroundings while tending her nest and eggs. Probably she was kept so busy making nests, laying eggs, hatching them and tending the young, that she felt a pretty leathered dress was impractical. Papa, who did not share in incubation duties, had more time to don his handsome feathered tail and strut around.
Nevertheless, I must admit, papa was a shrewd guide to his flock. Contrary to the appearances at times, he was always diligent in the watch for enemies—wildcats, eagles and men. His eyes and ears are so phenomenally sharp that it is rare that peafowl are caught. Of all the jungle populace, papa usually is the first to detect the approach of a leopard. At such times of danger, we do not often take to our wings, though we can fly fast and for long distances. Rather, we prefer to run swiftly along the ground.
Mention of enemies reminds me of something that happened when I was only six months old. Some of us peachicks were playing in the shade. One of the young males was making himself look ridiculous, trying to put on a premature courtship display. Ground squirrels scurried around and a little way off a lone blue jay was quietly perched in a margosa tree. In a nearby banyan tree a group of mynas were mimicking jungle sounds. A few peachicks were squabbling over a lizard that one of them had captured. Abruptly, papa emitted a piercing shriek that stopped us all in our tracks. Danger! We scattered in all directions. A soaring eagle appeared from nowhere, but thanks to papa’s watchful care, no harm resulted.
For the first few months I was hardly distinguishable from my sisters. Our tail feathers were the same. At eight months it came time, under the peacock system, to leave home and fend for myself. This gave mother a respite before her next stint at family raising. By this time I was developing my characteristic tail feathers that grow above the real tail feathers. It is a slow process. Not until my fourth year of life could I hope to attain the full male plumage.
Gradually as the months passed I acquired an immaculate suit of down and feathers. I got to be fully grown, weighing eleven pounds, and was almost seven feet from head to tail. My upper tail coverts alone were five feet in length. I had matured, and had the prospect of living to the ripe old age of twelve. I could look forward, now, to an annual change of clothing, and perhaps even to be admired by human creatures who carry cameras instead of guns.
If you could only have a good look at me! Starting at my head, I have a crest of upright plumules with a bare patch of white on each side. My eyes are also set in a patch of white. My longish neck is covered with brilliant metallic green and blue plumage, breaking out into mottled green under my wing feathers. This turns almost to black on my tummy. Notice that my wings, in contrast, are a gray, speckled with black. My real tail feathers, which you cannot see, are a brownish color.
My upper tail feathers, trailing behind for five feet, are a bronzy green and blue. These upper tail feathers develop spraylike webs on which are displayed the familiar glittering “eyes” or ocelli. At will I can erect these vertically above my back spread fanwise, and I can hold them there supported by the actual tail feathers. I can put on quite a show.
But this display is not primarily for the pleasure of human admirers. It is my way of winning mates. When our annual procreation period begins, I set out in search of prospective mates. As soon as I spot one I turn on all my charm. I perform a sort of dance before her. With chest jutting out and upper tail feathers held high, strut to and fro leaning forward. At the same time I utter a harsh, raucous cry, not at all musical to you, but it lets her know I am interested. At the climax of my display I vibrate my lower tail feathers, which in turn gives my train feathers a shimmering appearance to the accompaniment of a rustling sound. And it works, for in the breeding season, January to October, I can usually win four or five mates. Then I feel like a bejeweled maharajah strolling amid his harem.
Of course, my brilliant plumage can also be a hazard. With all this extra equipment, how does one evade hunters and commercialists who are out to eat me or take my feathers? True, there is legislation that restricts the hunting and killing of my kind, but there are always those who are willing to ignore the law. Can you imagine how difficult it is for me to keep out of harm’s way?
There is one thing I can do to lessen the danger. Each year, by molting my long train feathers, I can leave these beautiful mementos lying around on the ground for collectors to find and carry off. Then, too, in spite of my feathery impediment, I have the ability to glide silently through dense thickets with the agility of a cobra. Also, to many people I am an object reverence. They think of me as a sort “holy” bird. So peacock hunters do not dare to carry on their nefarious work openly.
But my story would not be complete without a little peacock history. I suppose you know that we belong to the pheasant family of birds. However, we have so many cousins among the pheasants that the experts have classified us under the term “Pavo cristatus.” Probably that is because our crest distinguishes us from our distant cousins. When my ancestors emerged from Noah’s ark they eventually settled in India. Here, for thousands of years, my kind have served as ornamental birds in royal courts and aristocratic estates. Even abroad they served as plumed ambassadors in foreign palaces.
It was a great day in peacock history when some of my distinguished ancestors stepped off Phoenician ships onto Egyptian soil and were ushered into Pharaoh’s court, where in full peacock regalia they presented their feathered “credentials.” Bible history tells of peacocks constituting some of the valuable imports of King Solomon. So, three thousand years ago, the splendors of Zion’s royal palace were enhanced by ornamental living peacocks. (1 Ki. 10:22, 23) Centuries later, Alexander of Macedon brought back to Europe two hundred peafowl.
Throughout our history we have always had difficulty in understanding things from the human viewpoint. For example, for millenniums in India we peacocks have been regarded as sacred birds and at times even worshiped. We feature in some of their ancient religious legends. Still today in parts of India it is considered a criminal offense to kill a peacock. Yet the ancient Romans encouraged the use of peafowl as table birds. In medieval Europe a banquet among the wealthy was not complete without a dish of succulent peafowl. You can see, then, how perplexing it has been from a peacock’s-eye view of things.
Now, before concluding, there is just one common misunderstanding I am concerned about. That expression “proud as a peacock” has spread the idea that a peacock symbolizes pride and vainglory. How do you think that makes me feel? And is it really true? Do you really think our all-wise Creator would implant such undesirable qualities in one of his dumb creations? But then, to fully appreciate the peacock’s qualities, one must get a peacock’s-eye view of things.