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The familiar and almost universally known Peafowl, a native of the Indian subcontinent, is an introduced exotic in many parts of the world. The male (peacock), with its long train of ornate uppertail-coverts, resplendent colors, and spectacular courtship dance, is one of the world’s most popular birds. In India the species has been protected by religious sentiment and is thus a familiar sight in rural villages and bustling townships alike. Wild birds are usually wary and circumspect, and they are difficult to observe in their forested or scrubby habitats. The loud and nasal may-awe call, uttered mostly at dawn and dusk, is a well-known sound in many parts of its natural and introduced range. In the wild, this call often betrays the presence of a nearby predator.
Peafowl were introduced from the region of India to Mesopotamia and Palestine about the 10th century BCE. No evidence supports their supposed earlier occurrence in Egypt or the Middle East. Solomon, king of Israel and Judah (ruled 965-931 BCE) is said to have received peacocks and other rich gifts, as did the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745-727 BCE). Birds were presumably transported by ship to the Persian Gulf and thence by overland caravans across Persia and Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. Peafowl reached Greece by the late 6th century BCE, probably first on the island of Samos (close to Turkey), where they were sacred to the goddess Hera. Within a century they were brought to Athens, where, as rare curiosities, they were first exhibited in a private zoo. By the 4th century BCE, they were common luxuries in Athens and both birds and eggs were eaten. Aristotle knew a good deal about their habits. With the spread of Greek influence and colonization, peafowl were taken into the Mediterranean region and North Africa. They were popular in ancient Rome, being raised in large numbers as ornamental fowl and as ostentatious food served at feasts. Wall paintings and mosaic pavements document their further spread into regions under Roman influence, reaching Britain by the 4th century A.D. By medieval times the birds had been introduced in western Europe, as evidenced by their frequent depiction in manuscript illustrations, paintings, and architectural elements.
The first record of Peafowl in what is now the United States was the introduction by Frances Sinclair on Kaua’i I., Hawai‘i, in 1860. Since then the species has become well established and independent of humans on many of the major islands in the Hawaiian chain. The first reported introduction into the continental United States occurred in 1879, when Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin brought 3 pairs to his vast ranch in the San Gabriel Valley of California. Today, semidomestic or feral populations persist mostly in California and Florida.
In areas where it occurs near cultivation in India, the species, which is omnivorous and opportunistic in feeding habits, is considered a nuisance because it is highly destructive to cereal and peanut crops. Even in some urban areas where this species has been introduced in North America, it has attained notoriety for its noisiness, for its habits of defecating in pools, on porches, and in gardens, and for its devouring the flowers of garden plants. This reputation has pitted Peafowl lovers, who adore the birds for their aesthetic appeal and confiding demeanor, against those who are annoyed by the birds’ intrusive habits, leading to protracted acrimonious debates on Peafowl management in various city councils.
The exquisitely beautiful ocellated uppertail-coverts are much sought worldwide for their ornamental value. They were collected regularly by Indian villagers after postbreeding molt and exported to the West until curbs were placed on this export for the protection of the species (see Conservation and management: management, below). The significance of the apparently cumbersome train of the Peacock has been a subject of intense investigation by evolutionary and behavioral biologists, and this research has led to many useful hypotheses on runaway sexual selection and mate choice in birds with elaborate plumage features.
This account draws information about this species from both its native and its introduced ranges. Because information from North America is scarce, however, much of the literature cited here on the biology of the species is Old World in origin.