ZOO-ology column: Texas Zoo proud as a peacock of its fowl

Peacock eye feathers.

Proud as a peacock -- a timely phrase for Texas Zoo visitors these days. Our male Indian blue peacocks are showing off their glorious courting duds as they wander freely in the zoo.

These birds, the second- largest members of the pheasant family, become drab and a bit bedraggled through the winter months, but when a peacock's fancy turns to love, he doesn't mess around.

Brilliant blue and green feathers glow, and flashes of iridescent color are amazing. A princely crest sits atop his head. His enormous train drapes elegantly like royal robes.

The female spruces up too, but her plumage is paler - and that's a good thing. She's less conspicuous while she's nesting.

The birds are generally referred to as peafowl and there are several species.

The Indian blue is the most familiar and what you will see at the zoo.

Males are called peacocks, females are peahens and the young are chicks or peachicks.

Foraging groups may be called parties.

They're forest birds, native to Burma and India. Wild populations have occurred in other parts of the world when captive birds have escaped. Southern Florida has a wild population.

Peafowl can fly, but only short distances - into trees to roost at night, or to escape danger. They're social and peaceful within their groups and spend most of their time foraging on the ground.

They're omnivores, eating both plants and meat. Grains, seeds, insects and even snakes are eaten.

Peachicks can feed themselves, but may stay with their mother for protection. Peahens are excellent mothers.

If danger threatens, peafowl shriek warnings. If you've never heard one, it can sometimes sound like a woman screaming. It definitely gets your attention.

Calls may also be used to attract a mate.

The huge fan display we are familiar with is the ultimate peacock attraction as he tries his best to win the hearts of several peahens. Two to five peahens make up an average harem.

The beautiful plumes are actually upper tail coverts (covering the tail feathers). He spots a possible candidate - whoosh - the tail and coverts rise and shimmy. He struts, poses and turns, making sure to be seen from all his wonderful angles.

Peahens are thought to be impressed and choose a mate by the grandness of his display. They may also decide to just ignore the suitor. Peahens may display to chase off competition or signal danger to their young.

The huge fan makes the bird look bigger and more intimidating. The eye patterns in the plumes may make an intruder think its being watched by many eyes. Displaying may also help sharpen hearing by channeling sound. It's rather like holding cupped hands behind your ears to gather more sound.

Peafowl have been admired for thousands of years. People associate them with patience, kindness, knowledge and guardians of royalty as well as mythological gods and goddesses.

Incidentally, the white peacocks are usually not albino. They are actually variants of the Indian blue peafowl.

The Texas Zoo peacocks are presenting awesome displays for excited visitors. Bring your camera and enjoy.

Sources:• digitalvertebrae.com/fall06/daryllf/about_peacocks_fact.html

•  facts-about.org.uk/facts -about-peacocks.html

• animals.nationalgeographic .com/animals/birds/peacock/

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.