Have you ever wondered why, in most bird species, the male with the loudest song, brightest plumage or most spectacular display is usually successful in attracting a mate? Given that birds have so many predators, and that the efforts of both parents are usually required to raise the chicks, it always seemed to me that females “should” prize males who went about their lives quietly and unobtrusively. Wouldn’t these be less likely to attract a predator’s attention than those strutting about and singing for the entire world to see?
In no species is this phenomenon more clearly illustrated than the Indian peafowl, Pavo cristatus. The above-mentioned thoughts came to be with great force while I as contemplating the American Museum of Natural History’s spectacular Asiatic leopard display. The exhibit features a leopard that has just captured a male peafowl, and the panoramic background painting depicts other peafowl flying off. Viewing the scene, one can easily imagine how a huge, colorful train of feathers might hinder the peafowl in escaping predators. Why then, does it assist the male in his efforts to secure a mate?
The answer is apparently to be found below the surface of what we see. By displaying large adornments and reckless behavior (i.e. singing from an exposed perch), the male bird is, in essence, proclaiming his ability to survive despite such encumbrances. He must, therefore, have sprung from fine genetic stock, and is perceived as being able to sire strong, healthy offspring. The very act of growing such adornments or developing a strong voice also indicates his good health, and the ability to procure a generous amount of food.
Of course, here there arises a great temptation to make comparisons to human behavior, but I’ll leave such for my readers who are better versed in that subject than I!
For an interesting story on peafowl breeding behavior gone awry, please see my article Indian (Blue) Peafowl, Pavo cristatus and American Turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo – an uneasy relationship.