The Science of Peafowl

King of the Birds series, part 1 of 3

Though the term “peacock” is commonly associated with both sexes, the correct term for these birds is peafowl. However, only males are peacocks, while females are peahens. A peacock will surround itself with a harem of peahens; large peafowl groups are called a muster. There are three main peafowl species: the Indian Peafowl, the Green Peafowl, and the Congo Peafowl. Peafowl belong to the same scientific family as pheasants,  Phasianidae.

The Indian Peafowl, also known as the blue peafowl, with its token tail feathers and plumage, is originally found in India’s subcontinent. Unlike the famous blue peafowl, the Green Peafowl species is located in southeast Asia. At the same time, the Congo Peafowl originates in the Congo Basin of Africa. However, the green peafowl and Congo peafowl breeds lack the token train of tailfeathers attributed to the blue peafowl species.

The three types of peafowl (top to bottom): Congo, Indian, Green.

While there are three main peafowl species, in the years since humans have domesticated these birds, a multitude of color mutations have evolved through selective breeding. While the word mutation often has a negative connotation, a color mutation in peafowl is a change in the bird’s color pattern via breeding. The first mutation appeared in the early 1800s, called the Black Shoulder, where peafowl’s shoulders were darker than their predecessors. Since that time, over 100 different mutations have appeared among domesticated peafowl through generations of selective breeding.[1] Despite this, the Blue peafowl remains the most coveted species among admirers of this bird.

Flannery’s peafowl were of the Indian Peafowl variety, the same species we have on property today.

Charles Darwin structured his famous theory of sexual selection around the peafowl’s characteristics. When studying the long and seemingly unnecessary trains of the Indian peafowl, the biologist questioned the purpose of this bird’s infamous attribute. The peafowl’s tail seems like a trait that would be detrimental to its survival in the wild, as it attracts predators with its unusual coloring. Predators of this species include foxes, raccoons, and mongoose, who raid the peafowl ground nests. However, adult peafowl are not the targets; their eggs and chicks are. Peafowl also rarely take flight, except to roost in trees during the day. Though they are strong fliers, these birds prefer to use their long legs to escape danger and move around. As a result, Darwin introduced his theory of sexual selection. This theory branches off his more famous natural selection theory, in that specific characteristics in individuals of one sex are seen as more attractive to the opposite sex for mating.[2] In the peafowl’s case, the peacocks compete by fanning their tails, putting on a display for the peahens. In a study conducted by the Indian Institute of Science, Professor Raghavendra Gadakar observed the peahens prefer peacocks with more elaborate trains as mates. The professor also states that “peacocks with elaborate trains themselves appear to be better survivors with larger fat reserves and higher levels of immunocompetence.”[3] Many scientists have argued that by having a large train of feathers, the male indicates its strength and ability to survive with a trait that could be considered a handicap. The tail display shows that finding a willing mate is worth the risk of the male’s survival to the male peacock. When it comes time to find a mate, the peacock’s mating ritual consists of various behaviors intended to attract females. They demand attention by dramatically fanning out their tail while dancing and making loud cries.

During the mating season, peahens can lay between twenty and twenty-five eggs, with three to seven eggs at a time. By surviving in groups, peafowl cover large parcels of land needed for feeding. The peafowl’s diet consists of seeds and nuts but small reptiles and insects. Farmers have often considered peafowl to be a nuisance, as they will often feed on crop fields in their large groups. However, peafowl initially were not seen as pests but rather a symbol of wealth.

[1] Brad Legg, “Peafowl Color Mutation/ Pattern History,” Legg’s Peafowl Farm,

[2] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871)

[3] Raghavendra Gadagkar, “Is the Peacock Merely Beautiful or Also Honest?”, Current Science, 85.

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