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.

The Dandies of Ranthambore

I was right at the back of a large open top vehicle called a cantor (I have no idea why a large jeep is named after a singer). When we came to a halt I was one of the last people to figure out that there was a large number of peafowl on the road. It had rained overnight, and there were several pools of water in the road. The bunch of birds must have tired of the worms and grass seeds it had been foraging on, and come to drink the water.

Although peafowl are widespread, I’ve never seen people walk past them without stopping. All twenty of us in the cantor were happy watching these pheasants walking around, drinking water, and generally having a relaxed time. This was not the mating season, so there were none of the fabulous displays that one sees from the male when its trying to attract a female.

Peacocks in Ranthambore

Off to one side of the road a couple of these dandies were displaying an aloofness that completely disappears in the mating season. I haven’t seen the red in the plumage before. Since the spectacular blue on the neck, and greens and golds on the tail feathers are all tricks of light (being due to diffraction from the microstructure of the feathers) this colour could be just due to the special angle I happened to see it from.

There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly distinctive about peafowl apart from the colours of the male. So why was it chosen to be the national bird of India? Quora has an interesting discussion on this, One day I must read the record of the deliberations of the committee that made this choice.