Pride of India


The homely Peahen brims with pride, (c) Young World, The Hindu, 2012

Unlike the female Bird of Paradise, the peahen bears no grouse against the beauty of the peacock. In fact she is proud of it!

Dear Aristotle,

I find the female Bird of Paradise arrogant and insensitive. I wonder how she could be so unmoved by the beauty of her mate’s rich plumage. I am a peahen, by the way, and wow, how lovely are the feathers of a peacock! Of course, I do not have them; and wouldn’t like to have such cumbersome ones that could cause my species extinction.

In letters to you, everyone is writing in about extinction. That makes me write this letter on the incredible survival of the peacock against all odds.

Does beauty destroy a species or does it help in its survival? Hard to say… though for us, it has certainly helped.

I cannot understand how any species would perish merely because of its beauty! Look at the peacock! In the last 4000 years, it has survived dramatic climate changes, predatory animals and man’s destructive tendencies. A bright blue body with gold-green tail feathers of about 1.5 m in length and a limited ability to fly make it a sitting duck for predators! Yet it remains the oldest ornamental bird in the world. What could be the secret of its survival? Could it be that the many myths surrounding it really protect it? Who would harm a bird of the gods?

From mythology

Here is a popular myth from Indian mythology. Long, long ago, peacocks had dull tail feathers. In a battle between the asura Ravana and Lord Indra, the bird opened its feathers for Indra to hide behind and wage a war. Indra defeated the asura and in gratitude, he made its long feathers iridescent.

Scientists do not agree that people’s beliefs in myths and legends are the real reasons for the splendid bird’s survival. They are not convinced that the peacock has not become extinct just because people revere and protect it. Then how did this species survive for so long? This question baffled even Charles Darwin. How much he despised this paradox! He could never explain its survival in his Theory of Evolution. But if you ask me, a peahen, I would say that a thing of beauty is a joy for ever and it will be cherished for all times. I believe it is the resplendent colours of a peacock’s feathers and the grace and beauty of his dance that have mesmerised people. It is not just the blue peacock of the peafowl family that enjoys this admiration. The other two — the white Congo peacock and the green Javanese’s one also fascinate all.

As for us, we are homely, and of brown or mottled grey plumage; we have no issues about not having colourful feathers! We are proud that the peacock was chosen as the country’s national bird in 1963. Hey, what more can one ask for, umm?

Ms Peahen

Reply from Aristotle

Hi! Did you know that the colours in a peacock’s feather are not due to pigments? According to scientists, the iridescence is due to interference of light reflected from nano 3-D structures in the barbules of each feather! Interesting, hmm? Or quite perplexing, cud-chewers?

Published as part of a series titled ‘Aristotle’s Mailbag’ in Young World, The Hindu, dt. November 26, 2012


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