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20 october 2011

Peacocks are a peculiar mix of the bizarrely exotic and the backyard ordinary. They are possibly the most resplendent products of avian evolution. But we've probably all known peacock fanciers who kept a few on their lots. Peacocks are among the most common attractions in zoos, and most outdoor menageries or farms or quasi-rural tourist spots have some peacocks around for color. Denizens of the mysterious East, they are among the most familiar creatures of the prosaic West. Christine Jackson's Peacock looks at their provenance, history, and prospects.

The blue peacock is one of only three extant species. Its cousins the green and the Congo peacock live in Asia and Africa respectively. Their numbers are dwindling; neither bird takes well to captivity, and both have seen their habitats eroded. By contrast, blue peacocks tolerate people, other animals, and one another pretty well. Like swans, blue peacocks live among people and are treasured for their beauty. Like swans, they are not really domesticated so much as electively neighborly. Like swans, they make raucous noises, though each bird has a species oddly named "mute" (the green peacock is pavo muticus). But unlike swans, blue peacocks are pretty gentle with people. Swans are meaner than hell; peacocks will strut their stuff without ever getting in your face.

What peacocks mostly do is look beautiful, in an overplus of extravagance that has no evolutionary purpose outside of sexual selection. Despite the male peacock's equipment, he runs fast and flies well; adaptation has not proceeded to the point of absurdity.

You can eat peacock, but KFP will not be a franchise idea anytime soon. Peacock is often emblematic for cultures of culinary excess. Romans ate peacock tongues at banquets and were fanned with the feathers of the birds they ate. But there are a fair number of medieval and early-modern recipes for roasted peacock breast. It was well-known as tough and tasteless; peacocks seem to have served the Middle Ages largely as decorations that could be eaten as a last resort.

Peacocks figure as symbols of royalty in their native Asia, where several societies have instituted Peacock Thrones as the ne plus ultra of luxury. Peacocks appear in many artworks. But they resemble great cats and zebras in appearing just as often as artwork as they do in artwork. Unlike their larger analogues, peacocks can provide the raw material for art without actually dying for it. They lose their tail feathers annually. Responsible peacock production will harvest the feathers and let the animal live to produce more next year.

A few days ago I looked up in someone's kitchen to check the time and was amazed to see that the clock itself was made of peacock feathers. No numbers, just twelve ocelli marking the hours on the clockface. The clock was wrong, and it was hideous besides. But that didn't really matter. I was spellbound by the iridescence of the individual feathers. Why should nature have produced something so unmotivatedly aesthetic? That's a very anthropomorphic question to ask. The peahen sees something in those ocelli that we never can. We just see the wonder of living on such a diverse planet.

Jackson, Christine E. Peacock. London: Reaktion, 2006.