independent

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Peacocks very good at making themselves heard

A peacock
A peacock

When I visited India recently, I was woken by a strange noise coming from outside. It sounded like a child or an animal in distress: 'Owwwowww!', 'Owwowww!'

I drew back the curtain of my guesthouse bedroom to try to spot the source of the sound, and in the half-light of dawn, I spotted them immediately: a couple of peacocks, roosting in a tree in the garden. You'd thnk that their chorus of calls would be enough to wake the neighbourhood, but everyone else slept on: peacocks are just an accepted part of the ecosystem in India.

In fact, the birds are correctly termed 'Peafowl'. The males are peacocks, the females are peahens, and the young birds are known as peachicks. The most common domesticated species, and the one that everyone immediately recognises, is the Indian Peafowl, which is the national bird of India. In the wild, they are forest birds, foraging on the ground in the daytime, and roosting in trees at night.

The female version - the peahen - is a drab, brown bird, and it's the male of the species - the peacock - that captures human attention, with his iridescent tail. In theory, the colourful tail attracts the attention of the female in the mating season: the bird with the best tail appeals more to the females, and so his genes will be more successful over generations.

Additionally, a fanned-out tail has colourful spots that resemble eyes, so that would-be predators of peacocks are intimidated by the sudden appearance of a frightening, multi-eyed monster when the threatened bird flicks up his tail into full display.

There's no doubt that peacocks are beautiful creatures: the fully spread tail of a peacock is a glorious sight. The usual feathered tapestry of blue, green, turquoise and gold is stunning enough, and for variety, there's even an all-white variety of peacock.

His stretched-out tail is the perfect accessory to the bride's dress in up-market weddings. It's no wonder that many folk take on peacocks as pets: if you have a bit of space out the back, the idea of a strolling flamboyance of colour in your own garden is appealing. Many people have discovered too late that peacock ownership is more complicated than you might imagine.

The first issue is the call of a peacock, which rivals the early morning crow of a rooster. If you live in a built-up area, it's almost certain that your peacock will annoy the neighbours with his wake-up calls.

The second issue is peacock behaviour.: they can be surprisingly intimidating birds. They may not have teeth, but a peacock beak is a sharp, pointy object that can easily inflict pain and injury. If you keep peacocks, you need to be ready to deal with the possibility of having the equivalent of a small but vicious guard dog on your premises.

One of my more memorable housecalls as a vet involved a peacock. A local up-market guest house had recently given a home to a peacock. They had been visiting a friend, who kept peacocks, and this bird - named Gonzo - had done a few twirls with his fully unfurled tail. They had a vision of Gonzo impressing their guests with his handsome tail on their front lawn.

Gonzo had settled in calmly at first, but once he had found his bearings, the real Gonzo came to the surface.

His bad behaviour started with loud calling from 5am onwards: not something appreciated by paying guests hoping for a good night's sleep. The owners discovered that the only answer was to shoo him down the garden so that at least the calling was happening a few hundred yards away. They had to do this several times every morning, as he kept creeping back up towards the house. In the peak of the tourist season, with a full day's busy schedule of providing hospitality, chasing a peacock around the garden at dawn was not their idea of a good start to the day.

But it was his aggression that was the cause of my call out that day. Gonzo developed a sense of territorial ownership around the guest house, viewing any humans who got in his way as fair victims. He rushed at people, his tail up, his wings half cocked as if ready to launch a full-on attack.

Most guests were sensible enough to stay away from Gonzo, backing off if he approached them, but on this occasion, a retired soldier had decided to stand his ground. He unfurled an umbrella, and challenged Gonzo. The battle ended ten minujtes later, when Gonzo pierced the umbrella with his beak, forcing the soldier to back off. Gonzo redirected his fury at the umbrella, and within minutes, he'd shredded the fabric and managed to get himself tangled up in its wire skeleton. This was the reason for my call out:: Gonzo refused to let anyone get close enough to him to de-tangle him from remains of the umbrella.

I took the coward's way out: a quick sedative injection, and five minutes later, it was easy to separate the sleeping peacock from the wire and shredded fabric.

The guest house owners seized the opportunity of Gonzo's drowsiness: before he'd woken up, they'd driven him back to his original home. They explained that they felt he'd be happier there, but everyone knew the truth: Gonzo the peacock and guest-houses do not go well together.

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