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Why Do Peacocks Spread Their Tails – All Spread Out For You

Peacock spreading its tail feathers

The legendary sight of a peacock fanning its colorful is one of the animal kingdom’s best spectacles. It is no wonder that it has inspired humans for centuries.

But why do peacocks spread their feathers? Why do these birds need to perform such an elaborate, energy-draining? How does it pay off for a vulnerable prey animal to have an almost debilitatingly large tail?

Evolution is weird, and that’s why we love it. Let’s discover the secrets behind peacock tail fanning.

 

Why Do Peacocks Spread Their Feathers?

The primary and only purpose behind a peacock’s feather display is to attract a mate and prove themselves worthy of the peahen’s attention.

During the mating season, peacocks (male peafowl) engage in a flashy courtship ritual to dazzle the peahens.

Peacock's display

The main part of the show is the tail display. The male will spread its exceptionally long and numerous tail feathers into a hand fan shape behind him. Then, he will shake it and rattle it elegantly.

Besides tail fanning, additional components of the choreography are particular sounds and dramatic movements.

Related: What do peacocks symbolize?

The peahens will watch this display and modestly reply – with certain sounds and far more subtle gestures. Her final choice will depend solely on the quality of the peacock’s display. No pressure, eh?

Also, conveniently, the train display warns nearby competitors of the particular peacock’s stamina and dominance.

 

The Elaborate Train

The peacock tail, commonly known as a train, is the species’ main trademark. It is made up of an array of elongated feathers in vibrant blues, greens, and iridescent hues.

Contrary to popular belief, these feathers are specialized elongated upper tail coverts, not true tail feathers. In Indian peafowl, are 100-150 of them in the train, and we recognize four special types or shapes of these coverts:

  • Fishtail feathers
  • Major eyespot feathers
  • Minor eyespot feathers, and
  • Sword feathers

The train can make up to 60% of the bird’s total body length. It is no wonder that the elaborate tail structuring has the potential to create such an impressive show.

 

What is the purpose of eyespots in peacocks?

Eyespots or ocelli of the train feathers are especially attractive and have long fascinated both regular people and scientists.

Charles Darwin wrote, “As no ornaments are more beautiful than the ocelli on the feather of various birds… they deserve to be especially noticed.” It is no doubt that he had peacocks on his mind.

Peacock tail feathers

Many animals use eyespots to scare away enemies, but not peacocks – when faced with a predator, they take flight. The purpose of peacock ocelli is related only to courtship. Research has consistently shown that females prefer males with prominent eyespots. Therefore, it is no wonder that there was a positive evolutionary selection of the trait.

Female peacocks look radically different from males. They are much more inconspicuous – and one of the most obvious differences is that they lack the train. Thus, their tails are not as elaborate.

However, female peafowl still perform their own courtship choreography. In tune with the looks, the displays mostly involve subtle movements and vocalizations rather than all the drama we see in males.

 

Can peacocks fly?

Peafowl, both sexes, can definitely fly – they just do it rarely. Field observation discovered that peafowl spend only 2.6% of their time flying.

Most peafowl will fly at a distance only when no other option exists. Commonly, they rely on short bursts of flight to escape predators or reach roosting sites. They often combine these flight bursts with jumping to spend even less energy.

However, we have to give peafowl a break for being such lazy flyers. These are some of the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing up to 13 pounds (6 kg).

The males are in even deeper trouble – rich, dense, long train feathers do not really help with flying. In fact, we used to think they hindered flight. However, recent research has shown that peacocks and peahens have similar flying abilities and that the train is not an obvious disadvantage for male peafowl in flight.

 

Some Elaborate Facts About Peacocks

  • The Indian Peafowl is the most well-known species of peafowl. Other peafowl species are the Green Peafowl or the Indonesian Peafowl, and the Congo Peafowl. The Congo Peafowl has a smaller tail with no eyespots.
  • Ancient Greek mythology has a legend about the origin of the peacock’s extravagant tail. It says that the train feathers were created from the eyes of the hundred-eyed giant Argus, slain by the goddess Hera. As a tribute to Argus, Hera adorned the tail of her sacred bird, the peacock, with his eyes.
  • Peacock feathers exhibit a phenomenon we call structural coloration. Unlike color pigments that produce color by absorbing certain wavelengths of light, the colors in peacock feathers are created by microscopic structures that reflect and refract light – like tiny mirrors. This is called structural coloration and gives the feathers the characteristic vibrant hues and iridescent sheen.
  • Peafowl has likely been domesticated in Southern and Southeast Asia for more than 2000 years. In that time, breeders developed many types, coming in 15 colors and 185 distinct varieties.
  • One of the most famous domestic varieties is the white peacock, with all snow-white feathers. This type of peafowl is actually not albino but leucistic, meaning it has white feathers but normally pigmented skin and eyes.
  • Throughout history, peafowl have been revered for their beauty and grace, often symbolizing royalty, nobility, and immortality in various cultures. For example, in Hindu mythology, the peacock is associated with Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and learning.
  • Peacock feathers have been highly admired for their exquisite beauty and have served as a source of inspiration for artists, artisans, and designers across cultures and centuries. From ancient Egyptian art to Renaissance tapestries and contemporary fashion, the iridescent hues and intricate patterns of peacock feathers never cease to inspire and stimulate creativity.
Male peacock's display

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the peacock display for?

Peacock display serves only one purpose – successful mating. The elaborate display exists to attract females and persuade them about the male’s good condition and fitness.

A recent discovery is that the tail rattling also helps by creating ‘infrasonic’ sounds that communicate to other peafowl at a distance. This is likely an adaptation to the fact that peafowl inhabit thick vegetation, so visual displays aren’t always the most practical way of communication.

Why are peacock feathers special?

Peacock train feathers come in several types and have a unique structure. They are highly modified for their main purpose – display.

Ocellated feathers, or the iridescent eye feathers, are elongated and carry the eyespot marks; they are certainly the most prominent. However, other types of feathers also support a quality peacock show.

  • Filoplume feathers or accessory plumes are smaller, fluffy, and colorless but act as sensors.
  • Wing covert feathers are protective and cover the bird’s wings; they are somewhat iridescent, but the color is a bit subdued when compared to the iridescent eye feathers.
  • Tertiary feathers or upper tail coverts are located towards the train base and act as a transitional section between covert feathers and ocellated feathers; their color is somewhere in between the iridescent ocellated feathers and subdued covert feathers.

What is it called when a peacock displays its feathers?

When a peacock performs its thing, we commonly call it “train display,” “feather display,” “peacock display,” or simply tail fanning.

About the Author

Katarina Samurovic

Katarina Samurovic is an Environmental Analyst (MSc) with two decades of experience in studying and supporting nature. A biophilic writer and educator, she uses her skills to bridge the gap between natural and human realms. She is a proud member of the Serbian BirdLife branch and enjoys field trips, birdwatching, turning rocks and logs (and always putting them back in place!), and gardening with the family.

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