Peacocks strutting on sweeping lawns conveys images of Britain’s great ancestral houses and I suppose it was the grand dreams and ambitions of the ancestors of one of my neighbours that brought peafowl to the Waiotahe Valley. That peafowl have become feral and considered a nuisance and worse, a declared pest by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, demonstrates the incongruities of our European heritage.
The peacock’s loud, unnerving, eerie scream, like a cry for help, led my neighbours in the Valley, some years ago, to try and get rid of them and the consequent shootings brought a hen to join my flock of turkeys at feeding every morning.
She was very timid and shy but with patience I managed to encourage her to stay until the following spring when she disappeared. To my delight, she returned in the early autumn with a couple of half grown offspring in tow. They all stayed at the farm through the winter but again she disappeared in the spring. Once again in the autumn she returned with a single offspring. She returned one last time the following winter to die as I found her by the barn one morning quite dead.
But the three birds she left me grew to be the most magnificent peacocks and for many years were a constant source of delight, the joy of them sitting on a fence post with the great tail draping down or parading and displaying. They are so beautiful, in a hard glittering sort of way, and I would often stand quite transfixed by the brillance of their colours.
Every spring, in response to the peacocks loud raucous cries, hens would appear out of the bush and my peacocks would casually saunter up the hill to join them. There must have been more than 100 peafowl coming over the hill every spring from Gabriel’s Gully so it was clear that they do very well here in the wild.
The rest of the year the peacocks seldom strayed very far from the barn and house but still someone managed to shoot them when I was away. They were, no doubt, shot for their feathers, so stupid really when they give away their tail feathers every autumn, strewing them around the paddocks there for anyone to pick up.
People and peacocks have had a very long association. For over 4,000 years they have been a colourful and graceful sight around Indian temples, where they were worshipped for their ability to fend off snakes and bad luck. Today, Indian peafowl congregate safely near villages and shrines where they are still protected by sacred Hindu law. Elsewhere in India they are hunted for food and feathers even though they are India’s national bird. Indian folklore has it that the peacock’s cry forecasts rain.
Peafowl belong to the family Galliformes, which include pheasants, quail, grouse, turkeys and Guinea fowl. Peafowls are among the largest Galliformes. The peacock is six to eight feet in length, including the train, and weigh up to twelve pounds; the peahen is smaller.
It is a common misconception that the peacock’s train is made of very long tail feathers. In reality, the 150 or so “feathers” in the train are actually protective extensions, or coverts, that cover the tail feathers. The tail feathers are the short, stiff quills that stand up behind the coverts to hold the fan aloft. Because the coverts are different lengths, the exotic eyespots at the end of each covert appear to be scattered about the fan.
These feathers are colored metallic green, and are decorated with irridescent ocelli, or eyespots, ringed with blue and bronze. A male may sport from 100 to 175 of these ocelli; the fanned train display is designed to show off each and every one. And with good reason. Females select mates based on the number of ocelli. Males with the greatest number win the most females.
Peacocks form leks: aggregations of very small territories, each owned by one male. The males display for any females that visit the lek, making it fairly easy for a female to assess several male before choosing one to mate with. The number of ocelli and the length of the train feathers increase between the ages of four and 12, so scientists speculate that these traits broadcast a male’s age and perhaps also his vigor and status.
In the breeding season the cock becomes solitary and combative. He calls loudly to advertise his presence to hens, and he defends his territory from younger male rivals. His act consists of a strutting display showing his best angles, rapid shivers of his fan that sounds like dried leaves stirred by a gust of wind, gestures of symbolic feeding.
After mating, the female leaves the family group and hides a nest in tall grass or deep forest cover; she digs a shallow hole, lines it with leaves, and lays five to seven cream-coloured eggs. She incubates the eggs for about twenty eight days and cares for the chicks for about seven to nine weeks, during which time she teaches them by example to find grubs and insects during the day; by night she broods the chicks beneath her.
Peacocks came to symbolize wealth and power. Phoenicians first brought peafowl from India to what is now Syria and Egypt about 3,000 years ago. About 600 years later, Alexander the Great introduced them to Greece, where he forbade people to harm them.
Roman mythology has it that Hera, the queen of the gods, hired the hundred–eyed giant Argus to spy on her husband, Zeus, who had his eye on the lovely Io. One day Hera caught Argus asleep on the job, all hundred eyes closed. Infuriated, she plucked out Argus’s eyes and threw them at the peacock’s tail, where they remain to this day. However, peafowl were served at the lavish banquets of rich people; the peafowls’ tongues were particular delicacies.
English barons in the Middle Ages offered roasted peafowl to their guests, who often dined while listening to peacocks calling on the lawn.
These beautiful birds though they now run wild in the Eastern Bay of Plenty would seem to do no one harm but once again they have fallen foul of our national propensity to persecute birds and have been declared a pest by Environment Bay of Plenty on the basis of complaints from farmers who accuse the birds of breaking the polythene covers of silage pits. Environment BOP intends to carry out a trial poisoning programme during the winter as farmers say that shooting peafowl is out if the question as they are too cunning and intelligent and are marvellous fliers.
Let’s hope they survive for I cherish the memory of them. I did not bring a piano into the bush but I did have peacocks strutting on the lawn.
Other common names: —
90 cm., plus male’s 1 m., tail; males 4.5 kg., females 3.5 kg., females mottled black and white with pointed tail.
Where to find: —
Feral in warmer northern parts of both main islands.
Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains;
And rains down life until the basin spills,
And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
As though to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape, at other’s beck and call.
Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet; though now it seems
As if some marvellous empty sell-shell flung
Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams,
And not a fountain, were the symbol which
Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.
Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone
The sweetness that all longed for night and day,
The gentleness none there had ever known;
But when the master’s buried mice can play,
And maybe the great-grandson of that house,
For all its bronze and marble, ’s but a mouse.
O what if gardens where the peacock strays
With delicate feet upon old terraces,
Or else all Juno from an urn displays
Before the indifferent garden dieties;
O what if levelled lawns and gravelled ways
Where slippered Contemplation finds his ease
And Childhood a delight for every sense,
But take our greatness with our violence?
What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,
And buildings that a haughtier age designed,
The pacing to and fro on polished floors
Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined
With famous portraits of our ancestors;
What if those things the greatest of mankind
Consider most to magnify, or to bless
But take our greatness with our bitterness?
— Wlliam Butler Yeats
Illustration description: —
d’Orbigny, Charles, Dictionnare Universel d’Histoire Naturelle, 1849.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Page date & version: —
Friday, 29 October, 2010; ver2009v1