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Fuss and peacock feathers

January 21, 2015
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A good look at a peacock feather and its distinctive eye-spot.

Yesterday I found eight peacock feathers in a dumpster. I considered alerting the media and notifying the police but I settled instead for taking some photographs to record the moment.

These are the first such feathers I have ever found in 10 years of digging through people’s garbage as a binner and I don’t expect to find many more — peacocks being something of a threatened species.

The long feathers were such a novelty to me that I plucked them out of the dumpster and laid them out on the recycling bins so I could get a closer look at the iridescent wonder of them. This caused a lot of loose barbs to fall off and make a mess and I concluded that looking at inert feathers wasn’t that much fun and that I’d much rather see them on a living peacock.

A feather in the hand isn’t worth the loss of one bird in the bush

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Technically speaking, “peacock” refers only to a male of the peafowl species, a type of pheasant.

A female peafowl is known as a peahen and young peafowls are called peachicks.

It has long been common practice though to refer to the entire peafowl species as if they are male, in the same way that the human species is still often referred to as “man” or the oxymoron “mankind”.

Peacocks Peafowls are native all over south Asia with white, green and blue varieties. The blue peafowl is the national bird of India, important to both the economic, religious and cultural life of the country.

Unfortunately, loss of habitat to human development, commercial exploitation and disease are taking their toll on all kinds of peafowl across all of south Asia.

The only known census of Indian blue peafowl was conducted by the World Wildlife Fund in 1991 and concluded that India was home to half as many blue peafowls as at the time of independence in 1947.

Green peafowls are believed to be extinct in northeast India and Bangladesh and known to be extinct in Malaysia. The remaining worldwide green peafowl population is estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000.

Peafowl are a seriously endangered bird species and in recent years there have been efforts to control and restrict the trade in both the birds and their beautiful tail feathers.

Beginning in 2010 the government of India moved to impose a complete ban on all aspects of the trade in peacock feathers, amid fears that the rising demand in India and abroad was outstripping the supply of naturally shed feathers, which are known in India as morpankh.

India’s domestic peacock feather industry has vigorously denied that they kill peacocks to harvest the feathers.

Last year two species of pheasants, including Indian peafowl, aka blue peafowl (Pavo cristatus), were added to Appendix III of the 120-country CITIES agreement (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). This means that all shipments of blue peafowls, in part or whole, should require a proper certificate of origin issued by the exporting country.

“The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail,
whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”

(Charles Darwin, in a letter to botanist Asa Gray, April 3, 1860)

While there is remarkably little information concerning the remaining worldwide population of various peafowl species, there is no end of scholarly chit-chat concerning their sex lives. That’s because Charles Darwin, the “father” of evolutionary theory, cited the peacock’s tail feathers, with their ocelli, or ornamental eye-spots, as a prime example of sexual selection, a “special case” of natural selection. However, countless studies have failed to conclusively prove, or disprove, that the males’ bright display plays a critical role in mating success.

There is evidence that evolution may have moved on, that the most recently evolved peafowl species are actually the least ornamented ones and that peahens may have outgrown any fascination they may have once had with the blingy display. A 2008 study of feral peafowl in Japan, Takahashi et al. 2008, page 1216, concluded that the peacock’s train of bright plumage was an obsolete sex selection signal for which “female preference has already been lost or weakened”.

Maybe the bright plumage of peacocks has had as much to do with sex selection as the bright red sports cars selected by some middle-aged guys. What if the males of some middle-aged bird species evolve garish tail feathers just to, you know, jazz things up a bit?

It would be funny if peacocks have just been going through an evolutionary midlife crisis. Click the image to enlarge it.

6 Comments
  1. Did you keep them? Are you going to do something cool with them?

    • I didn’t keep them. What would I have done with them? (Look, I’m Gloria Swanson!). They were also shedding too many of their long barb-things; I guess feathers dry out and fall apart eventually.

      • fletchings….and they shouldnt fall apart…

      • Really? Defective feathers? Perhaps they were thrown away because there was a recall on the particular model of peacock the feathers came from.

  2. Gloria Swanson! Oh Stanley, you crack me up!

  3. Slowcrow permalink

    Hi. Sorry, WRONG info regarding poultry at art knapp’s garden centre. None there anymore. And also, a slicker would definatly be better that an umbrella for walking those trails and dikes. Keep up the good work, u r awesome.

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