Two million home burglaries annually in America is a troubling statistic, but for low techies like me in a high-tech world, security systems’ code-controlled shrieks and wails are even more alarming. I am not a numbers person, so odds are a triggered alarm howling at night would make me panic and forget the code to shut it up. When living in the country south of Natchez, I knew woodsy invaders like rats, squirrels, and bats roaming the environs would create havoc with any alarm system. Not only would my nerves be frayed, but I would be scorned like the little boy who cried wolf. Perhaps if I had set up an avian alarm system with a party of peacocks, I would have felt safer as night fell with a dark thud.
An example of peacock protection existed at antebellum D’Evereux plantation in Natchez in the 1960s, when the birds patrolled the grounds or perched decorously on low live oak branches. I mistook them for a landscape feature, failing to recognize them as watchdogs. Peacocks are both territorial and curious, and an entire flock acting as a unit will investigate trespassers. They threaten unfamiliar humans, animals, or things by charging at perceived predators while screaming and can attack with sharp spurs called “kicking thorns” on their feet. The eerie peacock alarm-call sounds like a terrified woman or child fleeing assault, crying, “Help! He-lp! He-lp!” Carrying up to seven miles, it can make a grown man’s hair stand on end and wake the sleeping and the dead. The birds give a less alarming call, “May-aw!”, when planes fly over or cars drive by as well as to announce arrival of both dawn and dusk. In the six-week breeding season, males strut and holler lustily all the livelong day. It’s a crying shame no one has named a heavy metal band The Screaming Peacocks.
There is, however, more to peafowl than their screams. The term peacock applies only to flashy males. The Indian peacock’s body is a vibrant blue with a green and bronze train. The less familiar Southeast Asian peacock’s body is green, not blue. Peacocks’ manly bodies weigh up to thirteen pounds with a length of up to four feet, plus that showy train of five feet increasing length and height when raised like an umbrella.
In contrast, drab peahens are brown or gray and attain a length of three feet sans train, but they do wear the feathered tiara of the species. Weighing nine pounds, they are oft mistaken for homely turkeys. Peachicks’ tawny colors blend nicely with dust and dirt. Males’ brilliant colors are, however, an optical illusion. Mother Nature embroidered the tail feathers with her version of sequins, tiny translucent saucer-shaped beading that causes “optical interference” of light waves hitting from different angles and distances, which creates iridescence as light reflects erratically or is absorbed. The varied spacing of the pseudo sequins produces different hues and creates the alluring bronze “eye spots” of the feathered train, setting the stage for seduction.
Though six feet of train handicaps flying or fleeing peacocks, it is the focal point in mating season. Males gather in rowdy floorshows to attract hens for their harems. Strutting, prancing, and dancing, they line up with the most dominant taking center stage. They form a dancing flash mob, spreading and rattling tail feathers, quivering wings, and hooting. Finicky hens select by looking for some tail to give genetic clues. Size, depth of color, number of eye spots, and condition of feathers reveal strength of the gene pool where their chicks will swim. Competing males may use tomfoolery to woo and repeatedly hoot a fake “copulatory call,” compared by researchers at Duke University to the fonky honk of a clown’s horn, to convince hens of sexual prowess.
Once harems are established, the dance becomes intimate. The sultan raises his tail in an arc, flexes, rattles and rolls it seductively, and takes mincing side steps to close in on his beloved. Then he pivots and backs up several steps closer, bowing to display intimately hidden fluffy copper and black under-feathers and vibrating them provocatively. Spinning back around to face the hen, he hoots clownishly, and pounces. Voilà, fait accompli! As breeding season ends, males shed their feathers, which can be gathered, as hens make ground nests, lay and incubate eggs, and raise chicks without paternal support. The size of the flock—aka an ostentation, muster, pride, or party of peacocks—grows along with the volume.
Humans have raised peacocks for millennia. Stunned by its beauty, man transported the clumsy flyer. Over four thousand years ago, ships sailed them west from India to Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean as caravans toted them with exotic eastern wares over deserts. Owned by powerful Greeks and Romans, peacocks entered Greco-Roman myth and culture. Since legend said peacock flesh defied decay, corpses were covered with its feathers to thwart decomposition. When Christianity replaced paganism, the bird became symbolic of immortality and the eyes of its tail metaphoric for the omniscience of God and His Church. By the fourteenth century, the plethora of peacocks in Europe were plucked, roasted, and re-feathered for banquets; but when the first American turkey debuted in sixteenth-century Europe, it usurped the peacock platter. In return, the first peacock invaded the turkey’s territory via Hawaii in 1860. Flocks hit the mainland in 1879. Kept by the rich, escapees reproduced and became semi-feral voices crying in the wilderness.
If pining for peacocks, you can order fertile peacock eggs online and find advice from the United Peafowl Association. You need more than one to keep sociable peacocks happy and peahens to entice males to display their feathers. They require space to wander and explore, but if you want guard birds, pen them for a month or so to establish home base or they may run to the wild side. They get mixed reviews as pets. Some say the birds sit on laps and like petting; others say they are not so cozy; but their beauty and quirkiness are appealing despite damage to shiny cars that mirror their image and roofing shingles that pique their curiosity. As for the alarming calls, if kept in a barn at night they stay quiet. Most peafowlers welcome the watchful calls and don’t give a hoot about the noise.