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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Proud as a Peacock

"Why, he stalks up and down like a peacock - a stride and a stand"
- William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part I, Act III, Scene 5

It happens about once a week - a visitor runs up to me in a panic to let me know about an escaped animal.  About half of the time, it's a wild animal - a turkey, a snake, a skunk, or some other native critter that's hanging around the zoo.

Without fail, the other half of the time, it's a peacock.

(Actually, much of the time it's a peahen, which is the female version of a peacock, but probably because they are drabber and less noticeable, their comings and goings aren't reported as often).

"Peacock" is almost synonymous with "pride," and why shouldn't our peafowl be a little smug?  Virtually every other animal in the zoo is, in some manner, confined - behind glass, behind netting or fencing, or behind a moat.  The enclosure may be the size of a coffee table or it may be several acres, depending on the animal.  The only truly free creatures at most zoos are the peafowl, which many zoos allow to roam zoo grounds.  

Ours is one of those facilities with a free-range flock.  The birds are fully-flighted - they often spend the night on tree branches fifty feet or more up in the air.  They enter the enclosures of other animals with serene indifference in their search for food.  In theory, there is nothing stopping them from going out into the parking lot, perching on top of a truck, and hitching a ride cross-country.

The Indian peafowl is one of the most common zoo birds in the world, and it's so common that I sometimes forget what a magnificent, beautiful animal it is.  Fortunately, I have a steady stream of guests to remind me.  Even the "dull" females are attractive in their own way, but the males are absolutely stunning.  This is especially true when the spread out their most famous feature - the covert feathers of the tail.

The tail of a peacock is an incredible sight (though many visitors seem convinced that what they are seeing are actually the wings - they aren't).  Greek myth says that it is speckled with the eyes of the giant Argus, whom Hera entrusted to keep his one-hundred eyes on her adulterous husband, Zeus.  In practical, biological terms, the display of a spread tail enables the male to show the female that he is fit, healthy, and parasite free.  Not only is he strong enough to grow such an elaborate spread of feathers, he is also agile enough and wily enough to have survived dragging such a heavy load behind him in a world of predators.

The one environment where the tail of the peacock is not particularly advantageous is the zoo.  There, the handsome bird will find himself besieged by people who want one of his feathers as a souvenir.  Fortunately, the birds are able to escape their pursuers by jumping fences or flying away - it's always amazing to watch a crowd of visitors gasp in astonishment as the heavy-bodied birds explode into flight, their tails streaming behind them like comets.

And then there is the voice.  To quote Jeff Bonner in Sailing with Noah:

"A peacock's call sounds amazingly like a woman screaming frantically "Help! Help! Help!"  Granted - it sounds like a very large woman, with a fairly deep voice - but it sounds pretty convincing all the same.  I don't know how many times the park park police have been called to investigate this kind of false alarm, but I do know that they tell all the rookie park policeman that if they ever hear a woman screaming for help near the zoo, the odds are astronomically high that it's not a woman at all."

That the police in St. Louis are conditioned to ignore woman screaming for help near the zoo would not comfort me to know if I were a woman who lived there and frequented the park at night...

The omnipresence of Indian peafowl in zoos sometimes irritates me - there are more endangered pheasant species which could make use of some of the spaces that go to the common place Indian (not least of all the closely related, equally beautiful green peafowl, pictured below).  Still, I have to admit that there is probably no animal experience that so many guests treasure as much as watching an adult male peacock, tail trailing behind him, strolling down the path in front of them.  That simple connection between human and bird can create memories which will last a lifetime.

Few other zoo birds are given the chance to range freely, completely unrestricted, like peafowl - sometimes guineafowl, sometimes wild turkeys (seldom the males though, which have the tendency to beat up small children).  Part of this is probably the fact that peafowl aren't endangered, nor are they part of any special breeding program - it sounds harsh, but they're almost expendable, and curators will take risks with them - like allowing them freedom to roam anywhere - that they would never allow more endangered, more valuable birds.  

That's OK.  For a zookeeper, the Indian peafowl is a very common bird, one that many of us don't even notice as we walk zoo grounds.  For a visitor, however, it's an extraordinary, otherworldly creature that is the stuff of legends.

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