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peacock and mirrorVanity, Thy Name is Peacock

by Marjorie Dorfman

Where did the magnificent peacock come from? Why does it display its beautiful feathers? Learn the truth about this spectacular creature and share a smile or two.

peacock motifAlthough I am no expert in either human or animal behavior, I find it extraordinary that the peacock seems to be the only creature in the animal kingdom that is cognizant of its own beauty. The male peafowl in full resplendent plumage (the Elizabeth Taylor of the pheasant family) is surely one of the most spectacular sights in all the world to behold. I met one in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the Hilton Hotel many years ago. A group or muster (as they are called) was strutting through the lobby. One gorgeous fellow spotted me, strutted closer and displayed his dazzling train of tail feathers. He lingered a moment, but not long enough for applause. Ultimately, the sad fact was that while he might have been in heat, I wasn’t. Considering also that I was not a peahen, we were bound to go our separate ways. That old song, Two Different Worlds comes to mind whenever I think of that day.

Because of their beautiful appearance, these birds have long been famous outside of their native countries of India, Nepal and SriLanka. In the wild they live in rain forests where they build shallow nests of sticks, leaves and grass deep within the undergrowth. They do not migrate. They were kept by the royal and the rich for many centuries throughout history going back to biblical times. King Solomon had several birds of his own, although it is not known if they were as wise as he was reputed to be. To the Greeks, the peacock was known as "the bird of Hera", queen of heaven and wife of Zeus. A pair of them drew her chariot and they were kept at her temples. According to a well-known myth, the strange eye-like markings of the plumes were the hundred eyes of Argus, the giant, set upon the peacock’s feathers by Hera herself. In the Roman Empire, peacocks were extensively raised both for consumption and for ornamentation. They were Juno’s birds and on coins symbolized the females of the ruling houses.

peacock artThe Phoenicians brought the peacock to the Egyptian pharaohs more than three thousand years ago. It found its way to Europe among the spoils of Alexander of Macedon’s returning army. Throughout the ancient world the peacock was served at formal dinners. The European kings and queens of the Renaissance served an epicurian delight consisting of stuffed roast birds one inside the other like the famous wooden Russian mamushka dolls. The outermost shell was the glorious peacock, its many-eyed train stretching the length of the "groaning board." The 16th century brought the turkey from Mexico and with it came the demise of the peacock as a table bird.

The symbol of the peacock in mythology, history, literature and art pervades all cultures and religions. In the old Chinese bureaucratic system, members of the third highest level displayed a peacock as the insignia of rank. These were large, embroidered squares applied to the front of an official’s formal gown. (A similar system for indicating status was used in the Byzantine Empire.) Peacocks are considered sacred in India, especially in the north where its feathers may be burnt to ward off disease, and even to cure snakebite under the watchful eye of the female deity known as Janguli. She is described as having three faces, six arms and her vehicle is a peacock. Lakshmi, wife of the Hindu god, Vishnu, is sometimes depicted with armbands in the form of peacocks. The birds are sacred to her since their cries are associated with the rainy season and hence, fertility. The Kama Sutra recommends that, if a man wishes to appear attractive to others, he must wear a peacock’s bone covered in gold tied to his right hand.

two peacocksThe peacock’s beautiful color is said to be a gift from the god, Indra. One day the King of Gods was doing battle with Ravana, The Demon King. The peacock, which in those days resembled his plain brown hen, took pity on Indra and raised its tail to form a screen behind which Indra could hide himself. As a reward for this act of compassion, the bird was honored with the jewel-like blue-green plumage that it bears to this day. The magnificent fan of a tail is also associated with Buddhist teachings (The Wheel of Dharma), particularly its connection to the concepts of immortality and compassion and the Pure Land (The Garden).

The motif of two peacocks, one on each side of the Tree of Life is a well-known feature of Persian decorative arts. A pair of peacocks symbolizes the "psychic duality of man", similar to the role played by Gemini in western astrology. In both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the peacock’s influence is mainly in the realm of worldly appearance. This is in contrast to the swan, which is a symbol of the higher realms. Two important American writers who have featured the peacock in their writings are Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) who had her own beloved flock for many years, and Raymond Carver (1938-1988) in Feathers.

Peafowl, as the peacock and peahen are called collectively, belong to the pheasant family. There are two species: the Indian peafowl, Pavo cristatus, often called Blue peafowl and the Green peafowl, Pavo muticus, which lives farther east in Burma, Thailand, Indo China, Malaysia and Java. This latter species has three sub-species as well: Spicifer in Western Burma, a duller bluer race; Imperator in Eastern Burma, Thailand and IndoChina, much brighter and greener; and Muticus in Java, which is a brilliant green. The last two are often mixed and found in North America. The Indian blues are not very expensive and thousands of them are bought each year. They are kept and bred by people all over the world. They are hardy and easy to keep, even in colder climates. The Green species is not bred as often and is therefore more expensive. These peafowl are more susceptible to cold and need protection from it in order to survive.

Peacocks are friendly and interact well with humans. They may not fetch or lick your hand or sit in your lap, but when raised on game farms and well settled, they rarely stray far from home. They are sociable creatures (great at cocktail parties), and the male in the spring will often display his gorgeous tail feathers for the entire adoring world to see. No female can resist his dazzling splendor or his famous mating call. Each mature male keeps a harem of around five hens, which it wins in fierce competition with other males. As he struts, his feathers shine in metallic shades of bronze, blue, green and gold. His main glory (in which he does not hesitate to bask) is the 60-inch train of brilliantly marked plumes, each tipped with and "iridescent eye" ringed with blue and bronze. During mating season, the peacock will elevate his incredibly strong tail, which lies under the train, thus lifting it, spreading it fanwise and bringing it forward.

peacock artThe peacock can and does fly beautifully, but requires at least a 5-meter "runway" in order to get the lift required for take off. Worth mentioning here is the sequence of a white peacock in flight through falling snow at the very beginning of the 1974 Fellini film, Amarcord. Peacocks eat seeds, grain, fruit, other plant material and some small animals like mice, insects and snakes. Peahens are excellent mothers, but peachicks can be raised just as well with chicken foster mothers or in brooders. They are among the easiest birds to raise, but they must be given adequate shelter in the autumn and winter following their birth as they are not fully grown before eight or ten months.

Peafowl spend most of the day on the ground pecking for food, but as evening falls, they roost in the trees. In the spring and when disturbed, the male can produce a sound very like that of a diesel truck’s air horn. The birds are fairly intelligent, can be trained to come when called and are very hardy. They are sometimes kept on estates not only as decorative birds, but also as reliable "watch dogs." If you are lucky enough to run into one of these high stepping strutters, stop for a moment to give your broadest smile. You might be rewarded with a dazzling display of feathers any fan dancer worth her salt would die for. In any case, don’t ever be afraid, that is unless your goal is to steal the train of plumes that define this magnificent creature. In that case, forget about what I said and run like hell.

Did you know . . .?

animal news

A book about peacocks that you'll enjoy:

The Spooky Tail of Prewitt Peacock

by Bill Peet

The Spooky Tail of Prewitt Peacock

If you have yet to become acquainted with Bill Peet books, you're in for a treat! Prewitt Peacock's story is a tale of a... well... a tail. It's can teach a child that it's OK to be different – what sets you apart can make you special, too! This book comes highly recommended for all kids (and their parents)!

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