What Does It Mean When A Peacock Spreads His Feathers

During mating season, a male peafowl (peacock) spreads its feathers to both impress potential mates and deter potential predators.

Even though the tail feathers of this magnificent bird have been loved and studied for millennia, the true secrets of why peacocks have such spectacular tail feathers are only now beginning to be unravelled by modern science.

Commuter Rail for Peacocks

What Does It Mean When A Peacock Spreads His Feathers

The long, colourful feathers that the peacock displays are actually its train and a set of shorter “tail” feathers. Scientists have just lately demonstrated that this train, which can weigh as much as half a pound, does not prevent birds from taking off or flying short distances.

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When fully extended in a display of courting or intimidation, a peacock’s train can reach as long as 55 to 63 inches (140 to 160 cm) in length. A peacock’s spectacular feathers are constantly being shed and regrown in preparation for the next mating season.

A peacock doesn’t start developing its signature train until it’s two years old. The length of their trains continues to increase with each passing year, peaking at about six years of age.

With an average of 140–170 long feathers, each one ending in a “eyespot,” the peacock’s train is one of the most intricate displays of coloration among all the diverse bird species (ocellus).

A lot more complexity than was previously appreciated lies within this Ocellus, which plays a crucial role in the birds’ mating rituals.

Ocellus, the Peacocks’ Eggs

Female peafowl are referred to as peahens, and their attention is always drawn to their ocellus, or eye. A purple-black pupil is surrounded by iridescent blue-green and bronze-gold ring segments.

Contrary to popular belief, it does not appear that the size or shape of a male peacock’s train is more important to a female than the iridescent hues and shift in colour contrast it displays.

Recent studies have shown that the iridescence of the blue-green eyespot and the greatest change in colour contrast, rather than the total number of colours, determine which peacocks are the most successful at reproducing.

Because peacocks’ tail feathers change colour depending on the angle at which the sun hits them, when a peahen spots a peacock and looks at the potential mate, the peacock will angle his tail feathers at a 45-degree angle to the sun to display the sun’s full brilliance to the peahen.

The male will keep strutting around from various angles until the female is happy and approaches him. The brightest eyespots in the study were found in the males who bred the most successfully, suggesting that the 45% angle gives the highest iridescence achievable.

However, researchers have shown that this is only part of the reason peahens pick one partner over another.

As the Peacocks Ride the Train, The Rattle of the Peacocks

The iridescent display may serve more as an attention getter than a commitment signal in the mating process, according to the research. A peacock will “train-rattle,” or vibrate its tail feathers at a rate of 25 times per second, creating sound waves in the same manner that a guitar string does, once it has attracted a peahen’s attention and she is standing close by, a half metre or less away.

The peahen is able to hear these vibrations because of the crown of tiny feathers on her head. She may be able to tell if the prospective mate is of the same species of peafowl as her by the frequency of the sounds she receives, and if the suitor is capable of producing the correct sounds to woo her.

Using a complex system of visual, auditory, and olfactory cues, female peafowl will select a potential mate who has both the brilliant plumage and soothing song she needs to feel comfortable with the male and accept his approaches.

Feather-Feathered Threatening

However, the peacock’s train serves many purposes than only attracting a mate. To a predator, it must be quite a sight to witness its victim grow to twice its original size. Many potential predators will rethink attacking a train that is being fanning.

Peafowl are easy prey since they eat the ground. They can’t defend themselves because they lack weapons and aren’t particularly vicious creatures. And when they sense danger, they often take to the air and head for the nearest tree.

However, there are situations when the bird fails to recognise the threat until it is too late and must remain stationary. When threatened, a peacock would fan its feathers out to make itself appear much larger than it actually is, which will hopefully scare off the predator with its “big size” and “many eyes.”

Just like the male peacock, the female peahen will display warning displays when threatened.

Peafowl Have A Unique Method of Talking With One Another.

Above, we discussed how a peacock’s train creates sound waves that are “train rattled” into the peahen’s crown. Although this behaviour is essential during the mating process, recent research suggests that it also serves as a form of communication between the sexes in the peafowl.

Crowns, or vibration receptors, on the top of the heads of male and female peafowl are identical and can tune into frequencies that humans can’t even detect. And just like the males, the female peahens employ the vibrations in their short trail of tail feathers to produce sound waves.

Researches are curious about the birds’ usage of acoustic vibrations for social as well as sexual communication. Like dogs sniffing one another’s butts, research suggests that these vibrations can tell birds a lot about the health, social position, and intentions of other birds.

It is likely that peafowl use multisensory signalling, including noises created with their feathers, to transmit everything from health to potential hazards, however more particular study is needed in this area.

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Consequences of Peacock Charm

The male peacock’s spectacular feathers come at a significant cost. Female peafowl, whose feathers aren’t nearly as spectacular as those of males, have suffered the same fate as their male counterparts.

Poachers regularly kidnap and kill male peafowl for their feathers, which can cost up to $2 or $3 in global markets at present. Peacocks have a natural lifespan of 20 years. Even more male and female birds are being taken from the wild because peafowl have become expensive pets for the rich and famous.

The egg-laying peahen is at a severe numerical disadvantage compared to the male peacock because it is common practise to retain multiple peahens (often as many as six) for each peacock.

Since the average bird in the United States sells for $50 to $300, poaching appears to have no end in sight. The price of a peahen is much lower.