Since Charles Darwin recorded his thoughts about the birds, it has been presumed that peacocks' extravagant feathers exist primarily to attract potential mates. But new research has cast doubt on that theory and suggests that peahens do not compare the plumage of their suitors when they make their choice.
Jessica Yorzinski from the Texas A&M University is one of the world's leading experts on peacocks. She has recently conducted research using head cams strapped to the birds to discover more about the role that their feathers play in the mating game. The results were surprising.
Scientists have been questioning the role of the extravagant plumage for some time. This is because they have found it hard to understand why evolution didn't see to it that the birds were graced with less ponderous features to help them to attract their mates. That amazing display of feathers is rather unwieldy!
Yorzinski used head cams to gain a bird's eye view of what peahens are actually looking at when they are sizing up potential partners. Peacocks lend themselves to this mode of study as they are sufficiently large to wear the cameras. The birds wore the cameras for up to an hour at a time and appeared untroubled by their presence.
Sizing Up a Mate
The research revealed that it was the peahens who were strutting around in front of the peacocks rather than the cocks being ostentatious in front of the ladies. When encountering peacock, the peahens tended to keep their gaze at eye level or lower rather than staring at the fabulous plumage. The peacocks also fixed their gaze at eye level when sizing up rival males. Both sexes seemed to be focussing on the lower edge of the plumage rather than the amazing fan of feathers above. What does this all mean?
Yorizinski believes that the birds may be more concerned with the size of the potential rival or mate rather than the nature of their feathers.
"Both the males and females were looking at the bottom of the train, " Yorzinski said. "I certainly didn't expect the attention to be directed at the lower portion of the display. "Which begs the question, what are those feathers really for?
Peacocks are native to wooded areas in India where the foliage is often dense. This can limit the visibility of any wildlife. It could be that the birds evolved their amazing plumage to alert peahens that a potential mate was in the area rather than as an adornment to be compared with other potential mates.
Further research will be required in order to fully understand the function of those feathers. But whatever their true purpose, they are a wonderful sight to behold!