India and Ceylon are the native and only homes of the common peacock, a bird so well known in domestication everywhere that there would really be no need to describe it were it not for the sake of pointing out some sexual, varietal, and specific distinctions.
With regard to the first, everyone knows that the peahen is a plain brown bird without the cock's long train, but it should be noted that she has a similar crest, a good deal of green on the neck, and the under-parts dirty-white. The young cock in his first year is very like her, but can be known at once, if put on the wing, by the bright cinnamon pinion-quills, the first sign of the masculine plumage to be fully developed ; though even at this early age the neck is more glossy and bluer than the hen's, and the pencilling of the wings is indicated.
In the next year the full rich blue of the neck and the distinct chequering of black and buff on the wings are developed, together with the scale-like golden feathers between the shoulders. The train, however, is foreshadowed only by some beautiful bronze- green feathers overhanging most of the tail, but without eyes or fringes, and quite short. In the next year the full train is assumed, and no further change takes place, except that for some years it lengthens a little. The age of the birds can therefore not be judged for more than a few years, but there is good reason to believe that it may reach a century in captivity, though such a long life is hardly within the expectation of the wild peacock, with all the risks he has to run. Chicks have the brown down, streaked with darker, so commonly found among the true game-birds; in the brown chicken-feather they have the long narrow crest of the other species, the Burmese or Javan peafowl. They begin to show off when as small as a partridge, or smaller.
In the so-called Pavo nigripennis, the black-winged or Japan peafowl, which has not been found wild in Japan or anywhere else—with the exception of a hen once shot in the Doon and seen in the skin by Hume—the cock has those parts of the wings which are speckled black and cream in the ordinary form, black glossed at the edges with blue and green, and the thighs black instead of the usual drab. The corresponding hen is white with black tail, a considerable but variable amount of black streaking and peppering above, cinnamon crown and pinion-quills, and white instead of dark legs, as indeed the black-winged cock has. In the down, birds of this variety are primrose-yellow, developing buffy wing-feathers, and ultimately a chicken-feather of cream colour barred above with black, from which the cocks by degrees become darker and the hens lighter, as described above. I have gone into so much detail about this bird because it is positively known to arise as a "sport" from ordinary domestic peafowl, and to produce ordinary birds when crossed with the white variety so often imported to India from Europe as a curiosity. There is, therefore, no doubt that it is not distinct from the ordinary peafowl ; but at the same time it is a most interesting form, as it is distinct in all stages and rarely fails to reproduce its kind, so that any information about its occurrence in the wild state would be very interesting. The "uniformly dirty-yellow" hens seen wild by Sanderson were presumably a buff form, or they might have been young hens of this type, but as he says nothing about markings the former is more likely, and as I have heard of a cock of the domestic race which was described to me as exactly of the colour of a new copper coin, it is evident that a buff variation is possible for both sexes. Pied birds also are well known in domestication, but with the exception of the production of these colour varieties the peacock has not altered at all since its first introduction into Europe following on Alexander the Great's invasion of India, so that twenty centuries of domestication in an alien climate have not affected its plumage any more than they have eliminated the less elaborate but even more conspicuous black-and-red hues of its companion, the jungle-fowl.
Like that bird, the peacock is essentially a lowlander, not ascending the hills into a temperate climate, though in the hills of the south of India it' goes higher than in the Himalayas. It likes tree cover near water and cultivation, and where such conditions occur may be found almost anywhere in India and Ceylon; but, as Hume says, there may be too much water, cover, and cultivation to suit it, and so it is local. It is, however, often found in places which do not seem by any means ideal, such as the sandy semi-desert parts of the North-west. Here it is protected by its sanctity in Hindu eyes, and indeed everywhere where Hinduism is dominant; in native states no one may shoot it, and in any case it is always well to ascertain the state of local religious feeling before firing at peafowl, or the consequences may easily be serious.
No doubt in many out-of-the-way and naturally unsuitable places these birds have been artificially introduced, and where rigidly protected they are half tame ; but where they have to take their chance few birds are wilder and more wary, and they are most untiring runners, only taking to wing as a last resort. The flight is quite different from that of a pheasant, the wings moving with comparatively leisurely flaps and no sailing intervals ; however, it is much faster than it looks, and the birds, if positively forced, can rocket like any pheasant; but the old cocks, whose long trains are so much dead weight, cannot fly very far at a time, and have been even run down by persistent chasing during the hot weather. It is probable that any shifting of ground that the peafowl have to make is done mostly on foot, as used to be the case with wild turkeys in America in the days of their abundance ; these birds, by the way, having also limited powers of flight, often fell into rivers and had to swim ashore, and I have seen in England a young peacock reduced to the same extremity by having tried to fly across a stream with clipped wings, save himself similarly, swimming as readily as a moorhen.
The scream of the peacock is very well known, but the ordinary call-note is less familiar ; it sounds like anyone trying to pronounce the bird's Latin name Pavo through a trumpet, and is often used as an alarm-call. Being essentially birds of tree-jungle, pea-fowl naturally roost on trees, and high trees at that ; but they do not mount to the top, but settle down on the lower boughs. They are late in roosting in the wild state, and sometimes in domestication, though I have commonly observed them going to bed quite early. Yet they are wary at night—at any rate an escaped hen in Covent Garden defied nocturnal surprises for several months ; but they can be shot on the roost in the wild state, though only need of food ought to drive anyone to this. The buff eggs, by the way, about half a dozen of which are laid, generally in the rains and on the ground, are most excellent.
It must be admitted, however, that peafowl are not by any means friends to the farmer and forester, as they are destructive to grain, herbage, flowers, and buds ; most of their food is, in fact, vegetable, but they also, to their credit, consume various insects and other vermin, including young snakes. They are as good to eat as turkeys, if yearlings are taken, and a yearling cock can always be picked out, as I said above, by his cinnamon quills. Young hens have slightly redder quills than old ones, and are a little pencilled on the feathers over the tail. As the cock is three years old by the time he is in full colour, one can only expect him to be tough, as any ordinary rooster would be; but of course he is good for soup.
The peacock of course has names in all the native languages, and sometimes the cock and hen have different ones; thus in Uriya Manja is the cock and Mania the hen; in Mahratta there is a still greater difference, the cock being Taus, very close to the Greek Taos, and the hen Landuri; the Assamese Moir comes very near the Hindustani name, which has also the variant Manjar; Nowl is the name in Canarese, Nimili in Jeluga, Myl in Tamil; the Lepcha word is Morg-yung and the Bhotanese Mabja, while the Garos use Bode, and the Nepalese Monara.