PEACOCK (Lat. Pavo, O. Eng. Pawe, Du. pauuw, Ger. Pfau, Fr. Paon), the bird so well known from the splendid plumage of the male, and as the proverbial personification of pride. It is a native of the Indian peninsula and Ceylon, in some parts of which it is very abundant. Setting aside its importation to Palestine by Solomon (1 Kings x. 22; 2 Chron. ix. 21), its assignment in classical mythology as the favourite bird of Hera testifies to the early acquaintance the Greeks must have had with it; but, though it is mentioned by Aristophanes and other older writers, their knowledge of it was probably very slight until after the conquests of Alexander. Throughout all succeeding time, however, it has never very freely rendered itself to domestication, and, though in earlier days highly esteemed for the table,[1] it is no longer considered the delicacy it was once thought; the young of the wild birds are, however, still esteemed in the East.

Japan or “black-shouldered” Peafowls.

As in most cases of domestic animals, pied or white varieties of the ordinary peacock, Pavo cristatus, are not infrequently to be seen, and they are valued as curiosities. Greater interest, however, attends what is known as the Japanese or Japan peacock, a form which has received the name of P. nigripennis, as though it were a distinct species. In this form the cock, besides other less conspicuous differences, has all the upper wing coverts of a deep lustrous blue instead of being mottled with brown and white, while the hen is of a more or less grizzled-white. It “breeds true”, but occasionally a presumably pure stock of birds of the usual coloration throws out one or more having the Japan plumage. It is to be observed that the male has in the coloration of the parts mentioned no little resemblance to that of the second indubitably good species, the P. muticus (or P. spicifer of some writers) of Burma and java, though the character of the latter’s crest—the feathers of which are barbed along their whole length instead of at the tip only—and its golden-green neck and breast furnish a ready means of distinction. Sir R. Heron was confident that the Japan breed had arisen in England within his memory,[2] and C. Darwin (Animals and Plants under Domestication, i. 290–292) was inclined to believe it only a variety; but its abrupt appearance, which rests on indisputable evidence, is most suggestive in the light that it may one day throw on the question of evolution as exhibited in the origin of “species.” It should be stated that the Japan bird is not known to exist anywhere as a wild race, though apparently kept in Japan. The accompanying illustration is copied from a plate drawn by J. Wolf, given in D. G. Elliot’s Monograph of the Phasianidae.

The peafowls belong to the group Gallinae, from the normal members of which they do not materially differ in structure; and, though by some systematists they are raised to the rank of a family, Pavonidae, most are content to regard them as a sub-family of Phasianidae (Pheasant, q.v.). Akin to the genus Pavo is Polyplectrum, of which the males are armed with two or more spurs on each leg, and near them is generally placed the genus Argusianus, containing the argus-pheasants, remarkable for their wonderfully ocellated plumage, and the extraordinary length of the secondary quills of their wings, as well as of the tail-feathers. It must always be remembered that the so-called “tail” of the peacock is formed not by the rectrices or true tail-feathers, but by the singular development of the tail-coverts. (A. N.) 

  1. Classical authors contain many allusions to its high appreciation at the most sumptuous banquets; and medieval bills of fare on state occasions nearly always include it. In the days of chivalry one of the most solemn oaths was taken “on the peacock,” which seems to have been served up garnished with its gaudy plumage.
  2. A. Newton himself regarded this as probably incorrect.