THE PHARISEE OF THE JUNGLE
"That self-applauding bird, the peacock, see ; Mark what a sumptuous Pharisee is he. Meridian sunbeams tempt him to unfold His radiant glories, azure, green and gold. He treads as if, some solemn music near, His measured steps were governed by his ear, And seems to say, ' Ye meaner fowl, give place ! I am all splendour, dignity and grace.'"
THE peacock has been the innocent cause of many a fight between the British soldier and the Indian villager. We can hardly wonder at a great desire on the part of Mr. Thomas Atkins to shoot the bird, for, as it rises laboriously out of a wheat-field, about four feet in front of the sportsman, it forms a mark which it is impossible to miss, and, when it has fallen, it is a grand trophy. Every feather of the bird is a poem of beauty. It is, therefore, not surprising that, in those parts of India where the bird is held sacred, the soldier sometimes overlooks the notices which prohibit the shooting of it.
The sacredness of the peacock is the one Hindu superstition with which I am able to sympathize; unfortunately the superstition is very local, and the result is that in the few districts in which it prevails the most gorgeous of Indian birds is fairly common, while it is a comparatively rare object in all the other parts of the country. The mischievous monkey is everywhere an object of veneration to the orthodox Hindu. One could wish that this superstition were more local and that of the sanctity of the peacock more widespread. However, we must be thankful for small mercies. It is well that peafowl are protected in some parts of the country.
The peacock is a typical Asiatic. His habits remind one of those of a non-Europeanized raja. He leads a lazy, useless life among the ladies of the harem. He lives for display. " The poor bird," said Chrysippus, " is created only for its tail." Had the Greek said that the bird was created for its train he would have been nearer the mark, for the tail of the peacock is a very insignificant affair; the train is formed by the great growth of the feathers which are known to ornithologists as the upper tail-coverts, since in most birds they merely cover the upper part of the base of the tail.
The gait of the peacock is pride personified. As he walks, his looks, like those of an oriental prince, seem to express the words.
" Ye meaner fowl, give place. I am all splendour, dignity, and grace."
The beauty of the peacock has always fascinated Westerns. King Solomon used to import the bird from distant Ophir; while Alexander the Great sent one of these gorgeous creatures to Athens, where the people used to assemble in great crowds to see it.
The luxurious Romans imported the peacock as a table bird. It was served up in a dish ornamented by its feathers. This ingredient of the menu must have afforded the Roman cooks grand opportunities of indulging in a little sharp practice. I suspect that the same feathers used to do service a great many times and often ornamented dishes composed of game humbler than the peacock.
We are told that one Marcus Aufidius Lurco discovered how to fatten peafowl, and, in quite a short time, earned 60,000 sesterces at this occupation. In the Middle Ages peacock pie was a dish served up at every grand feast. The pie took the shape of the bird. The head and train protruded from the crust, and the beak was gilded.
Mediaeval knights used to swear by the peacock. Later on men took to swearing by peacock pie. " By cock and pie, sir," said Justice Shallow, " you shall not go away to-night."
A mistaken, but widespread fancy attributes to peafowl very ungainly legs, of which the bird is supposed to be heartily ashamed. Solomon appears to have inaugurated the idea, and the rest of the world accepted it.
" The peacock," said a mediaeval writer, " is a bird well known and much admired for his daintie coloured feathers, which when he spreads them against the sunne, have a curious lustre, and look like gemmes. Howbeit his black feet make him ashamed of his tail. And, therefore, when he seeth them (as angrie with nature or grieved for that deformitie) he hangeth down his starrie plumes, and walketh slowly in a discontented fit of solitary sadnesse, like one possest with dull melancholic"
A similar belief prevails in India. There is a country saying which may be thus rendered : " The peacock danced merrily until he caught sight of his legs, when he was ashamed and wept bitterly."
According to Lockwood Kipling, the supposed ugliness of the feet of the peacock is thus accounted for: " The peacock and the partridge, or, as some say, the myna, had a dancing match. In those days the peacock had very pretty feet. So when he had danced the partridge said,' Lend me your feet and see me dance.' They changed feet, but instead of dancing the deceitful partridge ran away and never came back again!"
But let us leave these frivolities and return to sober science. Peafowl belong to that large family of birds which does not build nests. In such cases the young are born covered with down and usually in a condition to fend for themselves. The peahen lays her eggs in a hole scratched in the ground and lined with grass or leaves. The breeding season seems to vary considerably in the different parts of India.
The favourite haunts of peafowl are wooded, well-watered areas, but they often occur in cultivated country, especially in Upper India, where they are protected in many places. In such districts, at the harvest seasons, the birds appear to spend most of the day in fields of ripening crops, and dozens of them may be flushed in the course of an afternoon's quail shooting. Peacocks are very abundant in some of the groves attached to temples; such birds may be said to be in a semi-domesticated state. Indeed, peafowl seem to be as ready to attach themselves to man as their related species which have already been domesticated. It is strange that peacocks have not become popular pets. Possibly this is owing to the absurd English superstition which accounts peacocks' feathers " unlucky," whatever that may mean. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the bird has a penetrating voice, which is best described as that of a very lusty cat.
Unfortunately peafowl are prone to give the world the benefit of their vocal music in the dead of night. However, cats habitually do this, yet cats are popular pets among certain classes of people. In Upper India I have more than once been awakened when camping, and thought that I heard the cries of some one in sore distress, but found that I had only been disturbed by the conversation of a couple of peacocks!
These birds, whatever they may have been doing during the day, invariably roost in trees at night. In localities where they abound, it is possible to distinguish, before it has grown quite dark, great black things high up among the leaves of tall, thick trees; these are roosting peafowl. When camping in inhospitable districts, where one's dak and provisions arrived only -: at irregular intervals, I have often been reduced to shooting peafowl while roosting, and then literally smuggled my victims into camp in order not to offend the susceptibilities of the country folk !
Young peafowl make most excellent eating, quite as good as Christmas turkey, but an old cock bird can give points as regards toughness to any dak bungalow murghi. In addition to grain, of which the birds are especially fond, peafowl feed on young buds and shoots, insects and lizards. They also eat snakes, and hence are useful birds to have in the compound.
As is known to everybody, peafowl are sexually dimorphic. The male only carries the gorgeous train. The female is by comparison a bird of sombre hues. Darwin explains the beauty of the male bird by the theory of sexual selection, the preference of the females for showy husbands, while they themselves are not similarly arrayed; for were they thus resplendent they would be very conspicuous when sitting on their eggs, hence Natural Selection has tended to keep the plumage of the females of a dull, uniform colour. However, it seems to me that this theory fails to account for all the brilliant hues of the male bird, for all the wonderful markings on each of the feathers of his train. Nor does the theory of Wallace, that these are the expression of the great vital force, of the abundance of energy in which the bird rejoices. Animal colouration forms one of the most interesting of scientific studies, and it seems to me that explanations have yet to be found of not a few of the shades and markings which render the plumage of many birds so indescribably beautiful.
The science of animal colouration is in its infancy; yet popular books on natural history give one to understand that the last word has been said on the subject.