Have you heard the term peacock and wondered whether it is the same thing as a peafowl? Or come across a peahen and pondered over its relation to a peacock? Well, it may surprise you to discover that both peacocks and peahens are peafowls, even though the term peacock may be used instead of peafowl. Confused? Fair enough!
Today we will be unravelling the peafowl mystery, clearing the fog of confusion, and slapping some much-needed definition on these often incorrectly used terms. We’ll also look as some stunning examples of these birds, as well as focusing in on their association with humans and cultural significance. Let’s get straight to the question at hand…
Peafowl, peacock, or peahen?
It is likely that you either use the term peacock or peafowl when talking about those large, often colorful birds, famous for their tail fans. In fact, the term peacock technically refers to a male peafowl, while the term peahen refers to a female peafowl. Therefore, peafowl is the correct term for both genders of this group of birds.
To add a little extra confusion, young peafowl below one year old are called peachicks!
What is a peafowl?
Peafowls are included in the same family as pheasants – Phasianidae. There are two species of peafowl within the genus Pavo:
- Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) A.K.A. blue or common peafowl
- Green peafowl (Pavo muticus) A.K.A. Indonesian peafowl
And one species of peafowl within the Afropavo genus:
- Congo peafowl (Afropavo congensis) A.K.A. African peafowl
The most famous traits of a peafowl are the magnificently patterned tail feathers and striking call of a male peafowl – a peacock. If you live in the US or Europe, you are probably most familiar with the Indian peafowl which has been domesticated and can often be found in zoos or patrolling private estates.
The females of these species – peahens – tend to be smaller and lack the large, iridescent tail fan. Their plumage is usually duller which helps them to effectively camouflage and evade predators. Similarly, the plumage of peachicks hides them against the environments they inhabit, keeping them safe in the nest and when they begin to run around as hatchlings.
Where do peafowl live? And what do they eat?
In the wild, in their native habitats, peafowl are forest birds and tend to inhabit lowland tropical forests. They can also be found on agricultural land where they take advantage of the open ground and leftover grains. All species of peafowl forage on the ground primarily for plant shoots and buds, flowerheads and seeds, insects, and any other small creatures like amphibians and reptiles they come across.
While the Indian peafowl can be found throughout India and Sri Lanka, the Green peafowl can be found in Myanmar and Java. The Congo peafowl is restricted to the Congo River basin located in central Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Due to their eye-catching colors and stately form, Indian and Green peafowl have been domesticated by humans both for eating and as ornamental birds for thousands of years. The Indian peafowl has been widely distributed across the world and is particularly easy to domesticate. It has been speculated that one of the first domestications of this species was performed either by the Phoenicians or by the Mesopotamian people over 4000 years ago!
Tail fans and courtship displays
Although peacocks are famous for their impressive tail fans, these are only on display during courtship rituals. Peacocks will drag their tail feathers around which trail behind them when not extended.
Indian peacocks possess the most iconic tail feathers with elaborate patterning and striking eyespots at the tips of their tail feathers. The iridescence of their royal blue and emerald green feathers is due to structural coloration.
During a courtship display, the peacock will spread his tail feathers and stride up and down a lek – a territory used by male birds for display purposes. The intensity of the coloration and vibrance of the feathers indicate the fitness of the peacock, thus the fittest males are the most likely to get chosen as mates by peahens. This is an excellent example of natural selection whereby the survival of the species is supported by the successful production of healthy offspring with a high level of fitness.
Vocalisations are used prominently by peacocks to attract peahens. The calls are loud and persistent, and can often be heard at sunrise or sunset. (Listen to some call examples here!)
Groups of peafowl – called an ‘ostentation’ or ‘muster’ of peafowl – usually contain one peacock and around five peahens. Mating is usually polygynous meaning that the peacock may mate with multiple peahens during the breeding season.
Nesting and the hatching of peachicks
Once mating has commenced and the peahens’ eggs have been fertilised, she will lay them in a nest on the ground, usually amongst tall grasses. The incubation period is around one month, and peahens will continue to care for peachicks for up to nine weeks.
Historical and cultural significance
Brief history of peafowl association with humans
Although Indian peafowl may have been originally brought from India to China and raised for the table, peafowl have been extensively raised as ornamental birds to be displayed and admired by people in many areas of the world. The Romans became fond of peafowl as a delicacy and spread them into every corner of the Roman empire. By the 14th century, it became increasingly popular for people of wealth and status to obtain these birds to display on their property.
Nowadays, Indian peafowl can be found in many countries in the world. In some places they are even considered crop pests and public nuisances due to their gregarious nature, fondness for roosting on peoples’ roofs and cars, and penchant for escape!
Cultural significance of peafowl
As a native species of India, it makes sense that the Indian peafowl has strong meaning and symbolism in Indian culture. In Hinduism, several examples of peafowl can be found including:
- Association with gods and goddesses such as Lord Kartikeya, Kaumari, and Santoshi
- Lord Krishna has a crest of peacock feathers
In Buddhism, peafowl symbolise acceptance, openness, and purity. The fact that peafowl often consume poisonous plants inspired Buddhists as they believed peafowl lived through major suffering with apparent ease. Additionally, peacock feathers are sometimes used during purification ceremonies.
Similarly, peafowl are seen as symbols of purity in Christianity. Early Christians may have placed peacock feathers over dead people, symbolising immunity to corruption and therefore a pathway to heaven.
There are also references to peafowl in Greek mythology. Peafowl have associations with Hera, queen of the Ancient Greek gods. In one myth, Hera’s chariot is pulled by peacocks.
Throughout history and culture, there are numerous references to peafowl from all over the world – a true tribute to the beauty of their feathers and royal bearing.
A closer look at the 3 peafowl species
Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus)
The most recognisable of the peafowl species, the Indian peafowl can be found in many countries today, usually in captivity. It can still be found in the wild all over India and the neighboring countries.
The peacock of this species is truly unmistakable with a long, royal blue neck, stunning iridescent green tail feathers with eye spots, and bronze to brown speckled patterns on the wing feathers. The train or tail fan of a male is shed usually in January but regrown rapidly to full capacity by June. Peahens are smaller with shorter necks, plumage ranging from grey to brown, and iridescent green necks. Both genders sport an attractive little head crest. It is good to note at this point that there are many variations of this species, and some subspecies in which the coloration can vary widely.
Although highly effective in terms of attracting a mate, the train of a peacock can often hinder them with regards to predator evasion. Imagine a big swathe of material sticking out behind you and weighing you down – it wouldn’t be very easy to run away!
Lots more information can be found here.
Green peafowl (Pavo muticus)
Another fabulous peafowl species, the Green peafowl definitely give the Indian peafowl a run for its money! Both peacocks and peahens look similar, but the male has a much longer train and the female tail feathers cannot be fanned in the same way. The peacocks’ train is also shed outside of breeding season, making the genders difficult to distinguish between during this period.
Green peafowl are not as rambunctious as Indian peafowl, with their more muted call. In the wild they can also be found in closer proximity to water sources compared to Indian peafowl.
Unfortunately, the Green peafowl is classed as Endangered by the IUCN. This is due to habitat loss and degradation, and hunting by humans.
Find out more here.
Congo peafowl (Afropavo congensis)
Last but not least, the Congo peafowl is the only peafowl species found in Africa. This species more closely resembles pheasants to which all peafowl are related. The have shorter necks and stockier forms than the Asiatic peafowl species but their coloration is also stunning – a mixture of iridescent blue, green and bronze. The genders are colored differently but possess the same range of tones. The tail feathers are much shorter and do not boast eyespots like their Asiatic cousins.
Congo peafowl are incredibly difficult to sight in the wild due to their scarcity and the inaccessibility of the habitat they reside in. Unfortunately, this species is classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN primarily due to human activities such as agricultural encroachment, deforestation, and hunting.
You can find more information here.