Between myths and science, the mating habits of the peacock

Copious studies conclude that Indian peafowl, a gregarious species, has a complex courtship display that always precedes copulation. Males (peacocks) engage females (peahens) by displaying their elongated train feathers in iridescent colours.

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | Published:June 2, 2017 2:31 am
peacock, peacock sex, rajasthan judge, Mahesh Chandra Sharma, rajasthan HC judge, rajasthan judge peacock, judge peacock, cow national animal, national animal of india, india news Myths associate it with sex; science says it doesn’t shed tears

FOR A bird that traces one of its mythological roots to an utterly lustful act, the relatively modern myth of its ‘immaculate conception’ is rich on many counts. When Indra was cursed to have a thousand ulcers (an euphemism for the vagina) for being caught with Ahalya, go some versions of the Ramayana, Ram turned Indra into a peacock with a thousand ‘eyes’ in the tail.

Turn to the Mahabharata and another myth makes any association of ‘pious innocence’ with the bird further tenacious. To avenge her insult by Bheeshma, who abducted and subsequently refused to marry her, Amba apparently entered the fire and was reborn as Shikhandini, the crested one. She later became Shikhandi and was instrumental in Bheeshma’s death during the 18-day war. Shikhandin literally means peacock.

As for the bird’s ‘immaculate conception’, the theory was probably invented to justify Krishna’s selection of peacock feather for his crown. It is believed to be a symbol of purity because “peacock and peahen do not have bodily contact and they reproduce when the peahen drinks the tears of the peacock.” Only, birds don’t shed tears. Their nictitating membrane, an inner eyelid, moves horizontally to protect and moisten the eye.

Switch to science and copious studies conclude that the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), a gregarious species, has a complex courtship display that always precedes copulation. Males (peacocks) engage females (peahens) by displaying their elongated train (upper tail covert) feathers in iridescent colours. A courting peacock raises and vibrates his tail and train feathers in front of a peahen during the January-September mating season of the species.

For all the romanticism for the peacock’s spectacular ‘rain dance’, peahens actually do not care much about those five-foot tall male displays. In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2013, Jessica Yorzinski of Purdue University found that the peahen’s gaze rarely fell at or above the peacock’s heads.

“Of the small portion of time spent looking at the males, females looked longest at the legs and lower portion of the train,” the study claimed. The upper portion of the display, however, do have a purpose. It helps peahens spot peacocks across long distances over forest foliage.

If the peahen is satisfied after a closer scrutiny of what really matters, she will crouch on the ground. His advances accepted, the peacock will now perform a ‘hoot’ — a single, ecstatic and loud call while making a short dash towards the peahen.

Strutting over, the peacock will mount the peahen and align his cloaca — a common orifice for the digestive, reproductive and urinary tracts— with hers to transfer sperm in what is known as a ‘cloacal kiss’. It’s over in a matter of seconds. The birds part ways, with the male looking for his next partner.

The strongly independent peahen is no saint either. Given a chance, she will prefer a lek to choose and pick partners. In her definite guide to evolutionary biology of sex — Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to all species — biologist Olivia Judson explained the lek system “where females want nothing from males but their sperm”.

Leks are common in species like the peacock which belongs to the order of Galliformes, heavy-bodied ground-feeding birds. A lek is a group of males — among peacocks, often the ones with relatively less impressive feathers — displaying together.

“By definition, leks are not organised around food or nesting sites or anything else a male could usefully defend. Instead, a female visits a lek to compare and contrast, to see who’s the hottest of them all. Having selected, she mates and goes away again. For a girl this is a great system. She gets to have sex with the guy she likes best — and doesn’t even have to see him in the morning,” wrote Judson, conceding that it’s tough on boys.

“Being judged means you have to compete. That’s why lekking species produce some of the most astounding show of talents, the most bodacious beauty contests on earth,” she wrote in her mock advice to a lousy peacock looking to impress peahens. “If you can’t make it on your own, gangs are often the solution.”

While some males are always less endowed than the rest, none really lack in intent. That is why all peacocks perform a ‘hoot’ before the actual act. It confounded biologists as to why they would spend so much energy by making that really loud call which may even attract predators during a very vulnerable situation.

But recent researches have found clues to a plausible method in this madness. The peacock hoot is likely to be a declaration of conquest — some sort of a victory cry — to impress the other females in the vicinity for future dalliance.

So much for brahmacharya.

jay.mazoomdaar@expressindia.com

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