A Year in the Life of the Green Peafowl in the Wilderness 20.08.2011
A year in the life of the Green Peafowl – how I kept track of them and watched them.
How does one set about watching a year’s life of the Green Peafowl? These birds are said to be shy, keen-eyed jungle dwellers and nothing in their environment can escape their attention – a fact I can only endorse. I had to use camouflaged hiding places for well over 90% of my observations. I had to accustom the birds to different feeding places I built close to where they live, since the Green Peafowl is likely to stay in one place and to stick rather rigidly to its habits.
It is the middle of March, the weather is sweltering, it is the dry season with temperatures of around 35° C. The nights are not much better, the temperature is somewhere between 20° and 30° C.
Phew! What a year this has been. I have provided the birds with everything necessary, for now they have to look after themselves. I found it very hard to leave them; they have become quite accustomed to me. Had it not been for the peacocks, the peahens would still be clinging to my tail feathers. What may be the thoughts of a hen, sitting in her nest, breeding her five eggs? Two weeks earlier she had scratched out a scrape with her talons below a boulder sticking out of the ground on the slope of a hill, padded it with dry grass and laid her eggs there. There were five eggs all in all; one was laid each day in the late afternoon. When the Green Peafowl does not live in captivity its clutch hardly ever numbers more than five eggs.
I hope that people do not burn off the thin layer of dry leaves in and around the jungle – as they usually do at least once a year. A lot of “my” peahens lost their clutches in the fire last year, some of them only days before the fledglings would hatch. Others lost their clutches to egg collectors. These eggs, irrespective of their stage of breeding, are regarded as a delicacy in large parts of South-East Asia. Monitor lizards, snakes, wild boars and other animals see the clutches as a welcome addition to their normal diet. A peahen then may lay some more eggs, much to the delight of the peacocks. For them this means mating time again.
People in most parts of South-East Asia, especially in Thailand, Burma, Viet Nam, and Cambodia, burn the thin layer of dry leaves in the Jungles for hunting reasons. Dry leaves make a lot of noise when you try to sneak up on animals, giving them a fair warning that danger is at hand.
The fledglings hatch after about twenty-eight days of breeding. During that time the peahen only leaves the clutch for a very short time to drink water and eat. The first fledglings hatch around the end of March or beginning of April. The peahen lays her first clutch at the age of two.
Shortly after the fledglings have hatched – usually within the first twenty-four hours – the peahen leaves her clutch together with her fledglings and shows them how and where to find water and food. The young ones are in extreme danger during the first days, since they do not know yet which animals are predators and when to hide or run away. Between the third and fifth day they start flying or hopping on trees, starting with scrubs and bushes. From the fifth day on they are able to fly six feet high.
The young feed on a variety of insects and different seeds that their mother stuffs down their beaks. When it is feeding time the mother calls the fledglings and they learn thus to distinguish between things that are fit to eat and which are not.
The peahen leads her offspring over paths well known to her through the jungle vegetation, to rivers and lakes. A peahen usually joins with another peahen and her young. Older peahens have about the same breeding time, so that the fledglings of my five peahens hatched within a period of three weeks.
When they eat, they keep a reasonable distance to each other.
The hierarchy among the peahens is very quickly handed down to the chicks. That is the chicks of a high ranking peahen precede the other chicks of the same age. The peacocks take only a small part in the breeding business.
Without a sound they glide from their perches to the ground in the early hours of the morning, they drink a little, pick the odd grain here or there before they proceed to their courtship-grounds. There they pronounce their presence with a loud “koohoo koohoo hoo hoo hoo ” or “waao waao”, thus marking the place as their territory, telling other peacocks to stay clear. At the same time the cries serve as an invitation to those peahens that have not found a mating partner yet.
The peahens and chicks are busy looking for food from the early morning to dusk, never staying too long in one place. It is only in the hot hours around noon that they visit bamboo groves to indulge in prolonged sand bathing.
When they roam for food they pass through the territories of peacocks. These peacocks welcome them and often show them around, helping their guests to find things to eat. Then the older peacocks display their extravagant eye-spotted wheels. The young seem to like that part because they – boys and girls – all join in displaying their tail feathers in turn. It is only the mothers that do not join the party. Sometimes the old peacocks stand aside.
I have never been able to observe a peacock helping the peahen in bringing up the young. Neither do the peahens seem to find help from their own juveniles of the previous year, as has been claimed in various internet forums.
I have not seen juveniles together with such a muster of peahens and their chicks. The juveniles usually go off, alone or in gangs, to roam unknown territory.
In this phase of upbringing the chicks the peahens begin to moult. Most of the peacocks begin their moult at the height of the courtship display by changing their light-brown primaries. This may happen as early as February. The birds regularly use the paths, which they themselves have made through their territory, as long as there is ample food and water and they are left undisturbed. Thus they also use the same sleeping-places for years. This is especially true for peacocks. If they are disturbed there in their sleep, they are likely to leave the place for an indefinite period of time to look for some other shelter a bit farther off. They usually return some time later, when they feel safe again. The peahens usually have several sleeping-places, because they do not – unlike the peacocks – permanently stay in one place. It often takes them two days to roam the length and width of their terrain. It is very interesting to see such a peafowl family walk from one peacock’s territory to that of another peacock. The new one usually awaits the new family at his territory’s border – we never know where exactly this is – and shows them around just like any peacock would do, treating the chicks as if they were his own.
I have been lucky enough to observe such families as they crossed five different territories and they were always very welcome. It would be worthwhile to do a DNA test to find out if the peahens mate with more than one peacock before they deposit their eggs – it is possible that they do.
In the course of the first months quite a few chicks lose their lives to snakes, wild cats and birds of prey. I once saw an eagle attack a muster of peafowl. The peahens gave a loud “tok tok tok krrrook krrrooh hoo hoo hoo” and the birds vanished into the thick undergrowth. In the wilderness only two or three out of five freshly hatched chicks survive. In a more man-made environment, where most of the predators have become extinct a peahen may sometimes even rear all five of her offspring until they are fully grown. But the normal case here is two to four chicks per peahen, most of which reach maturity.
As the chicks grow older and bigger they need more and more protein. Now frogs, snails, lizards, and small snakes are part of the diet. These are often swallowed in one. They also regularly search the excrements of the banteng for beetles. These beetles are regarded as a delicacy by the local people, too. Since peafowl are not pure carnivores, they feed on fruit as well. Their favourites are bananas, mangoes, the fruits of the Jacko tree, the fruits of climbing plants and lots more. They also eat grass, clover, and the leaves of various plants. They strip off ripe as well as unripe seeds from the panicles of a variety of grasses. On the fields of the local farms they sometimes band up as teams to harvest maize, rice, beans, and peanuts. All in all, the peafowl seem to be omnivorous. They will eat almost anything – provided they find it.
From July on, depending on when they were hatched, the chicks have passed their most dangerous time of their lives. They have learned a lot about food, predators and they have learned how to behave in a group.
The peacocks accompany the different family musters around their territory, as has been described before, but their day is a bit different from that of a peahen. They spend a lot of time – especially in the morning hours – keeping their plumage in order. It takes quite an effort to dry their long back and tail feathers and keep them straight. When they do this, one can see them in the sunlight, whereas they normally stay out of the sun. At certain times they wander through their territories and stay in certain spots – they may be courtship places? – for an hour or two. Then they go off to the next spot. When they come to such a spot, they tread very carefully, making almost no sound and they keep an open eye on everything that may be going on there. When they feel safe enough they enter the place crying “koohoo koohoo koohoo”. At the height of the courtship season a peacock will sometimes only shout “waao waao waao”, displaying his wheel, although I could see no peahen anywhere. From the middle of May on, sometimes a little later, the peacocks lose their trains within a matter of two weeks. That is when the raining season begins, too. Peacocks are often seen together with banteng or wild pigs. These animals feel safe with peafowl around because a peafowl’s eyes are very keen. But such paradisiacal scenes have become very scarce, because there is hardly any place left for big animals to live freely. During July and August one hardly ever sees any peacocks. It seems as if they were hiding on purpose. Maybe it is because they look too terrible due to the moult; their plumage turns pale and without their magnificent elaborated tails and metallic ocelli they look bereaved of all their splendour. But actually, the moult is of great advantage to the birds, because now they can move through the undergrowth without the long, heavily soakef feathers.
All I ever heard from them during that period was a warning-cry now and then. Apart from that they were silent.
The days pass until the end of October without anything remarkable happening. A good part of the plumage has been renewed and the uppertail coverts that make up the peacocks long train have grown to more than a metre in length. Now the peacocks’ cries can be heard again in the evening hours. Now they also start fighting for their territories again. Certain spots are particularly sought after by the peacocks. Here are some of their favourites: Winding forest paths, jungle glades, river banks, small islands in the rivers, waterholes of any kind, knolls, as well as farmland – to name but a few of them.
Nothing remarkable has happened with the peahens and their chicks, either. Their day is filled with foraging, looking after the chicks and teaching them everything necessary. By now the chicks have reached the peahens’ size and are not easily distinguished from their mothers. There are, however, some characteristic traits by which they can be told apart. The chick’s skin of the naked, featherless parts of the face has an orange colour, which changes only when they are almost two years old. Their crests are a little shorter. The young cocks have slightly longer legs and their wings are not as brilliant as the peahen’s wings, irrespective of the peahen’s age.
This is also the time, when one can observe rather big musters of peafowl, foraging in rice or maize fields. From the middle of November, the raining season being over, the peacocks intensify their courtship display; their cries are heard more often, even at night. Now large musters of peafowl can be observed on cultural land, provided your patience and perseverance is strong enough. Sometimes you can even see several peacocks in courtship display. The peafowl usually visit these places early in the morning or during the late afternoon – when they are undisturbed by the farmers. I have been able to observe thirty or more peahens with their chicks and up to four peacocks, sometimes they are joined (a little apart) by yearlings. These are hardly ever to be seen and they are usually not tolerated by the other peafowl.
It is a beautiful sight to see the young trying to show what they have learned so far. Sometimes a chick will lead a family, or even a whole muster, instead of the mother. Then you can see a young hen or a young cock walk in front of a group, carefully checking the area to see if it is safe until the rest of the birds arrive. Whenever families get together in such a muster there are also some little scuffles taking place to establish pecking order.
In December and January the temperature goes down to about 7° centigrade at night, but the weather is usually calm and there is no rain. At daytime the temperature rises as high as 25° to 32° centigrade, depending on how high up you are. The grass is withered by now and the food supply is much less plentiful than in the previous months. At that time the peafowl start invading the local farmers’ fields and a number of them fall victim to the human defences. Although the peafowl is a state symbol in a lot of Asian countries and they also play a religious role in these regions, a considerable number of them are poisoned or hunted and eaten.
It is an interesting spectacle to see the peahens lead their chicks as they enter the fields. The peacocks arrive some time later, because they have to dry their plumage first. The first sign of them is a loud cry of “waaoo waaoo waaoo” coming out of the jungle, followed by a peacock. He runs full tilt with strutting legs – neck outstretched, head slightly tilted back, crest bobbing back and forth, breast swollen with pride – past the peahens in a distance of about sixty metres, turns, runs back to the peahens, stops suddenly to cry “waaoo waaoo” again. This is indeed an impressing spectacle and I think it is only the Green Peafowl that behave this way, for I have never observed a Blue Indian Peafowl behave in such a manner.
A little time later the peacock will slowly strut towards some of the peahens, bows his head keeping it slightly slanted. Then his head starts to quiver slightly. He does not yet show off his plumage, only his colourful head with its long crest. He pauses for a few minutes, then turns aside, extends his uppertail coverts and displays his brilliant rainbow-coloured wheel. He slowly turns his back to the peahens, his whole body trembling and his feet tramping the ground. The peahens, however, do not seem to take any notice of the peacock, they continue to idly pick food from the ground. The younger peacocks join in the display, which is not really impressive, as they still lack a wheel. Only when they are three years old are their uppertail coverts long enough for this. Then the adult peacock turns towards the peahens, showing them all his splendour, and trips closer and closer towards the hens. It looks as if he was driving the hens in front of him. Some time later the peacock folds up his wheel and forages like the rest of the pack. As soon as the farmers arrive, they all vanish into the jungle; the peacocks return to their territories, the rest, peahens and their chicks wander off to look for food somewhere else. But that is only in the fields. In the actual courtship places in the peacocks’ territories it is different. There I have only seen one single adult cock displaying his wheel. Whenever he is disturbed he takes flight and is gone for some time. About half an hour later a two years old juvenile will enter the stage, hoping that the old peacock will not return too soon. These two years old peacocks are lurking everywhere in the bushes, waiting for an opportunity to take over a territory. This means a lot of stress for the adult peacocks
Around the end of January until the middle of February the days of the peafowl families are counted. The peahens visit the peacocks’ territories more and more often and stay there longer than before. Now the peacocks do not tolerate the presence of the chicks any longer. They attack the chicks vehemently, chasing them away and even fly after them, through bushes and trees sometimes for hundreds of metres. This happens in all the peacocks’ territories and whenever the chicks try to get to their mothers they are chased away. For the chicks this is the worst time in their lives, for from now on they are on their own. Although they are well prepared for their future lives, they have to do without their mothers’ loving care. This is a very hard time indeed for them. Whenever one sees them now they are running around aimlessly. This is particularly hard for single chicks. A couple of days later they band up into small packs and go off to find a new territory.
Only now do the hens have the chance to find a new nesting place and start egg deposition. They would not be able to do that with last year’s juveniles around them. I have never been able to see peafowl mate in the wilderness, but I have sometimes heard them. I know this mating ceremony from aviaries. The peahen walks up to the peacock and cowers in front of him. Then the peacock climbs on top of her with a loud “yeeehh”. I have been able to hear these cries of “yeeehh” several times in the wilderness and I guess there has been peafowl-mating going on. The peacocks display of his wheel is not the crucial factor for mating. It is only a kind of foreplay and has started weeks in advance. I think there are a lot of reasons, why peahens mate only with certain peacocks; maybe it is, among others, a combination of physique, beautiful plumage, and the courtship place. This year’s report ends here, so I would like to return to the beginning with a few thoughts on what I have seen. I do not know, for instance, if the juveniles really leave after being attacked by the adult peacocks. The number of peafowl in the territories that I have watched has remained stable over the three years that I have been there. I have not seen any of the about twenty chicks that have been bred there each year after they have been attacked by the adult peacocks. Even the two-year old birds are gone. Maybe the area was too small for all of them and they have all wandered off. This would protect the peafowl population from inbreeding. I think it would take DNA tests to find out if peahens mate with more than one peacock. Breeding-time and moult depend on the raining season and differ from region to region. The peacocks constantly gain in splendour until they are six to seven years old. One cannot really say exactly how big a peacock’s territory is, since this is determined by various factors. From my observation points I could usually make out the cries of seven to eight different peacocks. Once in a while the peahens too are heard to cry “koohoo koohoo hoo hoo hoo” but this is rare indeed and the hens have a different pitch.
I have tried to give you here an impression of the lives of the Green Peafowl in the wilderness and I hope it has been of interest to you.
A thanks to Heiner G for translation