The peacock

The peacock

Every year in spring, a magnificent display of colorful wheels takes shape among oaks, pines and hundreds of other tree species in the RAASM Oasis-Park. These are the peacocks, which flaunt their back feathers open like a fan during courtship. More than a hundred of them, of different species and varieties, live freely in the 12 hectares of botanical area: blue, green and white peacocks, as well as numerous hybrid specimens, called harlequin peacocks because of the dappled colors of their plumage.


The peacock is a bird in the Gallimorph family, native to India and Sri Lanka, where it still lives in the wild. In the rest of the world, however, it is easier to find in backyards and gardens, bred for ornamental purposes. Due to the magnificence of the wheel, which the male sports in the mating season, it is universally considered synonymous with beauty and a sign of nobility.
It is a sedentary animal. It suffers if removed from its birthplace and is very territorial. It feeds on fruits, seeds and insects as well as small vertebrates such as mice, frogs and snakes. Despite the awkwardness caused by the long drag, it can fly, although it usually just leaps between tree branches to reach elevated places to spend the night, then glides to the ground in the morning. Adult specimens weigh up to 6 kilograms and reach a wingspan of 1,5 meters.


It suffers if removed from its birthplace

and is very territorial.


There are three species of peacock, and some varieties of different colors in plumage. The most common is the pavo cristatus (blue or Indian peacock): males are conspicuous, with electric blue necks, green tail feathers and bronze-gold backs; in females, however, the long back feathers are absent and the colors are more modest, tending toward brown. Less common are the pavo muticus (green or Indonesian peacock), found only in Indochina, and the afropavo congensis (Congo or African peacock), which lives in the forests of Congo. Among the most fascinating varieties is the white peacock, a particular type of pavo cristatus: the whiteness of the plumage is not due to albinism but to leucism, a recessive genetic peculiarity that turns the animals’ livery white. The peacock’s wheel is made up of more than one hundred and fifty feathers that can reach 2 meters in length. Fanned open, its primary function is courtship: males attract the attention of their chosen one with dances that, thanks to feather fibers, reflect sunlight in colorful iridescence. The second purpose is defensive: the ‘eyes’ dotting the wheel serve to disorient potential predators.


SITO_pavone bianco


Males attract the attention of their chosen one

with dances that, thanks to feather fibers,

reflect sunlight in colorful iridescence.


Peacock feathers, after their annual fall, have always been collected and used as ornaments, with celebratory and sometimes mystical meanings. In China they were used to make valuable tailoring items: weavers made yarns from peacock feather fiber, which were then woven into the ceremonial robes of emperors to create effects of magnificence and awe. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), peacock thread was used in the dragon theme to embroider skin scales. The peacock also appears as a symbolic bird in several religions of the ancient and present world. In India it is associated with Krishna, the Hindu deity who identifies the Supreme Being. In ancient Greece it was consecrated to Hera, the ‘queen of heaven’ deity protector of the family. It also had good fortune in the Christian tradition as a symbol of Christ and the related gifts of eternal life and resurrection. More generally, the peacock is associated with good luck and prosperity. In fact, keeping one of its feathers in the house is auspicious for good luck.
In our time no one raises peacocks for food, but in ancient Rome and throughout the Renaissance it was considered a delicacy for refined palates, to be served at the most sumptuous banquets with spectacular arrangements to impress diners. It was brought to the table ‘dressed’, that is, covered after cooking with its own feathers, its beak and legs covered with gold and precious stones instead of eyes. Although it was sacred to Juno (the Latin counterpart of Hera), in Rome it set the tables of the nobles, and emperors included it among their favorite foods. Peacock dishes are also found in many 15th- and 16th-century cookbooks, including the Libro de arte coquinaria by Mastro Martino, Europe’s most famous 15th-century cook. However, after the discovery of America, peacock meat was supplanted by turkey meat, which was imported to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors.



The peacock banquet, 15th century miniature by unknown artist

In ancient Rome and throughout the Renaissance

it was considered a delicacy for refined palates.


The magnificent drag that covers the backs of males has been a worry for evolutionary biologists since Darwin’s time. From the perspective of natural selection, the peacock is an evolutionary paradox. How is it possible that it developed that long, heavy drag, which makes it clumsy in flight and more susceptible to being grabbed by predators? Darwin himself gives the answer. Underlying the process that led the peacock to today’s characteristics is not so much natural selection, but sexual selection. The specimen with the best characteristics for survival does not win, but the one most favored by the opposite sex does. In the case of the peacock, the most beautiful. Thus, females are credited with selecting the genes that led the peacock to have the wheel of today’s size and magnificence.