Prancing Peacocks: An Indian Monsoon Story

A peacock sits on a blossoming Semal tree. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

Prancing Peacocks: An Indian Monsoon Story

BloombergQuintOpinion

The yodeling sound ricochets off the walls of the city: ae-yaooon, ae-yaaoon.

In the sky, pre-monsoon thunder is grumbling, and from our roofs, peafowl are yodeling. Abandoned plots, tiny emerald strips of parks, densely packed colonies, university campuses, the outskirts of cities – peacocks seem to be everywhere, swishing their tails and trying to impress peahens. And while there are many sad stories of modern-day loss, the grand Indian peafowl is not one of them.

Many Indians believe hearing the peafowl call—an odd sound that is something like a giant, nervous cat meowing—signifies that rain will come. Indeed, when there is thunder rumbling, I hear peafowl calling, a bit like a guard dog warning everyone. Others believe that seeing a peacock dance means the monsoon will follow. This is actually true – the monsoon is also the time peacocks flick up their tails and do a shimmy for attracting a mate.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Like a modern Mughal painting, a peacock sits on a blossoming Semal tree. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

Like a modern Mughal painting, a peacock sits on a blossoming Semal tree. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

Seeing a peacock dance is an experience each Indian should have.

The bird lifts its tail to form a fan. The full fan is semicircular, a half-moon expanse. Once lifted, the tail is shaken sensuously—the motions making the tail look like ripples of water. It’s a cabaret in bewilderingly iridescent green-gold-blue colours. The bird also does some legwork—it will go round in neat circles. And very often, there is no peahen by the time the big bird is done with its rotation.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>A peacock dances in circles in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh; the peahen characteristically ignore him. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

A peacock dances in circles in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh; the peahen characteristically ignore him. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

But clearly, the dancing eventually works and the birds are doing well. The latest State of India’s Birds report finds that peafowl numbers have actually gone up in the last few decades. Even as other common birds—such as the Yellow-fronted Pied Woodpecker, the Common Woodshrike and the Indian Thick-knee have declined in India. And while the peafowl faces the threats of poaching for its magnificent tail feathers, and poisoning by pesticides, it still a common bird that is going from strength to strength.

Perhaps part of the reason is that the bird is a generalist. It does well in forests, and also in cities.

It will hunt snakes with the tenacity of a carnivorous eagle, and pick off grains like a peaceable granivorous blue rock pigeon.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>A peahen helps herself to a bird feeder in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

A peahen helps herself to a bird feeder in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

I see the peafowl inhabiting two different universes. One is that of the deep wilderness, a life spent between rocks and thorny bushes, dodging leopards and tigers.

I would see statuesque peafowl everywhere, while conducting research in the Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan. Their unmissable colours are bold but nevertheless have the gift of camouflage. Against a rocky, emerald hill, a peacock would blend in, the green feathers looking like leaves and the jewel-blue neck looking like a trick of the light. Yet, during the monsoon, the birds didn’t want to be missed. The males would be out in the roads, green-gold shimmies in the gentle silver rain. Deep in the forest, the birds wouldn’t move for our vehicles while dancing; I would instead stop my Gypsy and wait for the serenade to be over.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A peacock framed against a hot, deciduous forest. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

A peacock framed against a hot, deciduous forest. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

The other universe the peafowl has learned to inhabit are rooftops. In cities, I see the birds foraging and resting on roofs with the ease they show on the forest floor.

In the strange mess that is Delhi, I have seen huge male peacocks walk daintily between discarded commodes and sinks left on terrace ledges, while others call framed by dish antennae.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>In cities, the birds have made themselves at home in rooftops with dish antennas. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

In cities, the birds have made themselves at home in rooftops with dish antennas. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

I also see them flap noisily on to vertical kitchen gardens, helping themselves to leaves and fruit, hopping from tree branch to rooftops with practised ease.

And the peafowl may also be doing better because of climate change. A recent study observes that the birds are now found in larger areas in Kerala, while the wet state did not report many sightings earlier. “We have used 100 years of weather data and 100 years of peafowl data to find the birds are expanding their range. They were reported as late as the 1970s with a much smaller distribution. This could be because Kerala is becoming drier. The peafowl could be considered a bioindicator of changing climate,” says PO Nameer from Kerala Agricultural University.

As a little girl, I would hear jackals cackling and peafowl yodelling in Delhi at dusk. The jackals are gone from most parts of the city. But the peafowl persists.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A peacock pecks at its reflection in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

A peacock pecks at its reflection in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

I always have an ear out for their calls in the early mornings and late evenings. For what we hear is what we like to listen to. Bestselling author Peter Wohlleben writes in his book, The Heartbeat of Trees, on listening for Crane calls: “Because the calls of the cranes are among my most favourite sounds, I hear them even when, for most other people, they get lost in ambient noise. I register crane calls… despite triple glazing, insulated walls, and the nightly hum of the television.”

For me, a peafowl’s call is a welcome city sound. It is passionate and rattling, but it is also devoid of anger or malice.

In a city where shouting and disturbing sounds are part of life, a big bird calling is like a signal that a parallel world exists here too.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>A young peacock calls out at dusk. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

A young peacock calls out at dusk. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

A world where the national bird can live in capital cities, walking in Rashtrapati Bhavan and sitting on metropolitan radio towers.

Lately, I’ve had lusty peafowl calls find their way into zoom sessions; I’ve had my flower-pots pushed over by the birds; I’ve seen windows pecked to pieces by angry males perceiving threats in their reflections.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A peacock feeds on leaves from a vertical garden in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)</p></div>

A peacock feeds on leaves from a vertical garden in Delhi. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

I welcome it all: thank goodness for their comedy, colour and dramatic relief. Even as we come to terms with working from home, here’s one bird that knows how to live life king size.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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