Is there any more impressive bird than the peacock? Those tail feathers are really quite something. Peacocks have some of the most wonderful colouration and feathers of any bird, and are certainly worth admiring for that. But you also have to remember that peacocks do live in the wild, and in that context their abundance of tail feathers is really quite ridiculous.

Of course, when I say peacocks, I am talking about the male birds, as they are the ones with the great big bushy tails. The name for birds of the genus Pavo is peafowl, with peahens being the word for female birds and peachicks the name for young. There are three species of peafowl, the Indian peafowl, the Congo peacock, and the Green peafowl. Indian and Green peafowl live in Asia, ranging from India (obviously) to Java. The Congo peacock lives in the Congo. The three species are usually found in forested areas, though they can live in other habitats.

A rather drab looking bird, isn’t she? Image by Hafiz Issadeen, from Dharga town, Sri Lanka, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Peafowl exhibit strong sexual dimorphism, where one sex is visually distinct from the other. The males of the species are famous for their long tail feathers, which can be as long as 1.5 metres in green peafowl. With the tail included, peafowl are some of the largest flying birds in the world. And yes, they can fly, even though it seems like they shouldn’t be able to. Here’s a picture just to prove it:

It’s quite impressive, actually. Image by Servophbabu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Peahens are a little less flashy than their partners – for the most part the females are brown with little ornamental colouring. In green peafowl, however, the females are quite colourful and are difficult to tell apart from the males after moulting, when the male has lost his beautiful feathers.

The brilliant colouration seen on peafowl (mostly peacocks) is not actually a result of pigmentation, but of iridescence. I am really not that strong on optics so I’ll just put it this way: the peacock’s feathers are designed so that when light hits it, it reflects in a certain way to produce colours. If you want more info, you can probably find a book or good online description of structural colouration.

I cannot get over how big they look when displaying. Image by Marlith, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Peacocks use these ridiculous tail feathers to display to females, in order to attract them as mates. What exactly it is about the feathers that makes the peahens fall head over heels in love is still in debate. Some studies have shown that the number of ‘eye spots’ on the tail is a key factor, while others suggest that size does, in fact, matter. Still others have found no difference in female selection when tails were longer, shorter, had different numbers of eye spots and were symmetrical or not.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that the tail evolved to get attention, and we should be thankful that it did. For it is certainly a lovely, lovely thing to look at. Still pretty ridiculous though.

Cover image by Martin Falbisoner, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons