Hot on the heels of an Egyptian Cobra that recently escaped its Bronx Zoo enclosure, a Peahen has now (May 10, 2011) gone one better and is hiding out somewhere in the neighborhood near the zoo. The zoo’s Peafowl range freely on its grounds, and can fly, but in all my years working at there none “decided” to leave. This, and some newly discovered information on Peafowl mating behavior, sparked today’s article. Read More »
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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.
Indian (Blue) Peafowl, Pavo cristatus and American Turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo – an uneasy relationship
Indian peafowl, often referred to as “peacocks” (in truth that name should be applied to males only) are one the earliest species to have been established in aviculture, and still among the most desired. Despite their great space requirements and the loud calls of the males (one community in a NYC suburb passed an ordinance requiring surgical “silencing” of pet males’ vocal cords!), they remain quite popular in this country.
A group of 60 or so has roamed the grounds of the Bronx Zoo for decades. Although equipped with well-developed powers of flight, the birds simply do not leave the zoo grounds. Perhaps it is the un-inviting Bronx streets that dissuade them – although such did not deter a huge saurus crane, but that story is for another time!
Wild turkeys also inhabit the forested areas of the zoo’s 265 acres. Some years ago I noticed that a young turkey, separated from its mother, had taken up with a brood of peafowl. He followed the female about as if she were his own mother, and roosted with the family at night. Turkeys and peafowl, despite hailing from very different parts of the world, are related (both are members of the order Galliformes) and share many traits.
As the bird matured, he began sparring with male peafowl as opposed to male turkeys. One day a visitor alerted me to a “murder” in progress – a male peafowl stood over the turkey, pummeling the prostate bird and drawing blood with his sharp leg spurs. The turkey was fully alert and turned out to be not badly hurt (when I rescued him, receiving a gash for my efforts), but had seemed paralyzed and unwilling to fight back.
An older bird keeper provided an explanation of this odd behavior – as do many animals, turkeys utilize a submissive posture when they have lost a battle, thereby ending hostilities without serious injury. The turkey had apparently lain flat on the ground in an attempt to give up, but this had only spurred his enemy to further aggression. Peafowl and turkeys are related enough for males to view each other as rivals – yet not so close as to recognize each other’s behavioral signals.
As for the turkey, the lesson seemed only to confuse him further – he soon found small children easier targets than peafowl, and began running them down during the breeding season! He eventually found a home among a group of domestic turkeys at a local nature center where, hopefully, he sorted out his identity crisis.