Dandies

Harsh cries ring through the jungles of central India in summer: the call of the peacock. I normally ignore the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus). They are commoner than crows and pigeons when you enter the open jungles of this region. But as the monsoon’s breeding season approaches I keep a watch for the mating display of the male. If you are lucky enough, you can get a photo that is worth the halt. Sometimes you see a lek: a group of males all displaying together, for the benefit of a seemingly uninterested female. This is perhaps its core behaviour. The female selects a mate based on the size and colour of the train. Growing a large train takes energy, in terms of health and food, and the ability to escape predators. There’s no faking it. At the same time, the female’s preferences selects the biggest trains, and therefore the offspring are likelier to have big trains. Repeated for generations this pushes the species into the direction of males with more spectacular trains. Since the genus could be recognized in 18 or 19 million years old fossils, most species in the genus have evolved towards bigger trains.

Unfortunately the only peacock I’ve seen is Pavo cristatus, the Indian peafowl. Native to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, breeding populations have been introduced in Singapore, Taipei, the UK, and the USA, largely in Florida. I’ve yet to see its larger cousin, the Green peafowl (Pavo muticus). It is disappearing fast in Myanmar, but I suppose on a trip to Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia, or even in the extreme east of India, I could plan to visit its habitats. It is a little astounding that viable hybridization between P. cristatus and P. muticus can be established. It seems that the reason is that in birds cellular evolution is slow, and two species like this, which have separated only three million years ago have not changed sufficiently for their crosses to be unviable. I wonder whether anyone has tried crossing the Congo peafowl (Afropavo congensis) with either of the Pavo.

An interesting thing about the feathers is that they never fade. That is a clue that the colours are not due to pigments; pigments would oxidize over the years and change. The iridescent colours are due to, well, iridescent diffraction of light. Microstructures in the feathers produce the specific wavelengths that are seen, and a little change in the shape and size is enough to change colour. I’m surprised that a comparative study of the feathers of the peafowls has not been done. It seems that feathers don’t fossilize well, otherwise it would have been possible to examine the feathers of the extinct European peafowl (Pavo bravardi in the south and Pavo aesculapi in the north) and tell their colours. It is strsnge that so little is known about birds as spectacular as these.

The invisible Florican

Bengal Floricans (Houbaropsis bengalensis) are said to be critically endangered. What does that mean, you ask? IUCN will give you one answer. There are less than 1000 individuals left of this species, the only one of its genus. When the last of these grassland bustards dies, not just the species, but the whole genus will disappear. I look at it in another way. Cornell’s ebird application is used by many birders to record their observations. Take a common Indo-Malayan bird like the white-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). It has been reported on ebird 520,415 times when I wrote this. The Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) is perhaps as common, but has been reported only 10,852 times because it is a nocturnal bird; harder to see and identify. The Bengal Florican has been reported 1,037 times, twice by me. There were seven people with me in Manas NP when we saw this bird, so the same sightings may have been reported about ten times more. It is truly rare.

We’d planned our trip for March, which is the breeding season of the bird. Our visit to the eastern range of Manas, the grassland, started early in the morning because the birds are active in the mornings and evenings. The grass was tall, as you can see from the featured photo of the peacock (Pavo cristatus). Floricans would have been entirely hidden. We scanned the grassland fruitlessly for a long time. Then we heard the harsh but faint clicking of the Florican. One came flying low over the grass at a distance. Immediately, another one jumped out of the grass, clucking. The males are territorial. There was a long aerial chase around the horizon. Neither bird came near us. I got a few distant shots of the birds in flight. You can see the white primaries, splayed out like fingers contrasting with a dark lower surface of the wings. The upper surface is completely white, and the body is jet black. As a photographer I was disappointed, but as a birder I was very happy to see this long display of territorial aggression.

The next morning we started much earlier. Perhaps the birds would be more active in the morning. We were either correct or lucky. As soon as we got into the open grassland we spotted a peacock and a Bengal Florican on the road in the distance. The grass was clearly so high that the Florican would be lost in it if it moved away. So we stopped at a distance to get a first shot. The scene was dreamy in the morning fog, and I could not believe in my continuing run of luck: good as a birder, bad as a photographer.

We couldn’t approach too close without spooking the birds. But as long as we kept our distance, we had ample opportunity to take photos. The light was bad because of the fog. But I had a wonderful view of the male: black head and neck, long like any other bustard, dusty speckled brown body and wing coverts, with the white primaries of the wings showing. I’ve consciously traded a long zoom, 2000 mm, for a large sensor, and I’m usually happy with it. But in this light I wished I had a camera with a better sensor. Still, I must count myself satisfied with my first sighting of this rare bird, one in five hundred of all reported sightings. As our grasslands disappear, places like Manas and Kaziranga are the last redoubts of the once common species that abounded through most of India.

A most supercilious bird

Walking about Ujjain’s Jantar Mantar I was expounding boring theories about the resurgence of medieval astronomy in early modern India when I heard the harsh call of a peacock. The Family clearly found this call electrifying. She broke off towards the tree where the call was coming from. The bird wasn’t hard to spot. It was sitting right there in the shadow below the canopy and calling loudly. It looked down its beak at us for a while, like the villainous Shen from one of the Kung Fu Panda movies.

Peacocks must be terribly common in Malwa. Just the day before, I’d seen one perched on top of a dead tree next to the highway, doing nothing except looking faintly ridiculous. I find them fascinating when they walk about on the ground. When one is up on a tree its exaggerated train looks exactly like out-of-control clothes on a dandy. When all other pheasants I know of are shy creatures, who run away at the sight of humans, I wonder why the peafowl is so indifferent to us.

In fact, when you browse the IUCN Red List you find that most pheasants are endangered due to loss of habitat, but not the peafowl. It has adapted to humans. It cannot be an accident that the peafowl is most closely related to turkeys, another species which has adapted to humans. I haven’t found detailed studies of this adaptation, but one of the most important reasons must be that they do not eat crops, and therefore are not considered to be pests. Are they also able to use the disturbed landscape efficiently to forage in? I’ve seen them in gardens and forests. Are they generalists in terms of utilizing landscape for breeding? I haven’t come across answers to questions like this. Perhaps there are studies but they are hard to find.