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The Peafowl’s Tail: the Mystery of Flamboyant Male Birds


PeafowlHave 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.

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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