BY NANDINI VELHO
About 150 years ago, peacocks were treated as a bane because of their beauty. In 1860, none other than Charles Darwin complained, “The sight of the peacock’s tail makes me sick.” But still, peacocks (which are male, while Peahens are also called female Indian Peafowl) went on to become socio-cultural stars.
The national bird of India is the centre point of evolutionary biology discussions that have shaped our ideas about females (and arguably gender in human societies). Darwin’s survival of the fittest theories could not explain why they had long-tail trains. On much reflection, he came up with a new theory called sexual selection. But sexual selection or the struggle for mates was a theory that would have to ultimately push back against entrenched values of those times. For instance, the prevailing idea was that males selected females (in human and non-human societies).
But why do many peacocks gather around a female and embark on elaborate dances with their long tails? Was it actually possible that females actually chose males who looked good because of their tail trains? Yes, females preferred mating with peacocks who have elaborate trains, writes Prof. Raghvendra Gadagkar in the journal Current Science. But despite the apparent handicap of being more vulnerable to predators because of their long tails, peacocks with long elaborate trains are better survivors with more fat reserves and higher immunocompetence. And so, 158 years after Darwin’s irritable rumblings about their tails, peacocks have paved the way for female choice to be more accepted in human and non-human societies.
While the peacock gets more inch space today there was once much debate about which bird should be chosen to represent the nation state. Salim Ali, the revered Bird Man of India, picked the rare Great Indian Bustard as his choice of national bird. M. Krishnan, the pioneering nature writer, preferred the Common Myna. He felt that there was a high risk of Bustard being mis-spelt to something much ruder! But utimately the Peacock was declared India’s national bird in 1963.
Although Peacocks are endemic to India, they have now been introduced to different parts of the world. In May 2018 a resident cut down a roosting tree in Sullivan Heights, close to Vancouver, after his father slipped on peacock excrement. Many in the neighborhood believed that peacocks added much value, and organized themselves to take action against the alleged offender.
Closer to home in Goa, the state government floated a proposal to declare the Peacock s as vermin, a requirement for future culling measures.
But Peacocks are more than meets the eye. They are part of a network of interactions between multiple species in a local ecosystem. “Although Peafowl populations have increased in many human-modified habitats of Goa, this is not necessarily the case in relatively undisturbed parts of the state”, states Savio Fonseca, author of Birds of Goa. He explains that the decline in Golden Jackals (kollos in Konkani), an important predator of peacocks, is the key reason for this increasing population trend. The decline of predator species may have resulted in peacock populations increasing with corresponding downstream effects on reduction of other Peacock prey species such as snakes.
The Peacock is the perfect metaphor for what one could hope from IFFI, 2018 – an influence that extends to science, society, representation and local ecologies from across the world.
Nandini Velho is an award-winning wildlife biologist