India’s Avian Glitterball

It is mid March in Gujurat. The dry, teak woodlands are coated with dust and papery, plate-sized leaves have formed a brittle carpet on the floor of the Gir forest. With midday temperatures peaking in the high thirties, trees are rapidly shedding their old leaves, yet at the same time bursting into flower. Parakeets and starlings sip nectar from the abundant Butea whose flame red blooms illuminate the landscape. Along the dry luggas, jasmine-scented Carissa shrubs perfume the air. The monsoon rains are eagerly awaited but they are a good ten or twelve weeks off.

We are on the back of an open jeep, in search of the iconic Asiatic Lions that have their last refuge here, but there is much else to see in the Gir National Park. A pair of Oriental Scops-Owls sit outside their tree cavity home, with cryptic plumage perfectly matching the teak bark. A troop of long-limbed Hanuman Langurs are assembled in the shade of a massive Banyan tree, mothers grooming their young, teenagers taunting one another, and vigilant males on sentry. A Chital stag rubs and sharpens his antlers on a favoured stump. And into this world struts a male Indian Peafowl.

Is it possible to capture – in words or pictures – the startling magnificence of a peacock appearing in this muted, tawny landscape? I think not.

Cloaked in iridescent sapphire and emerald, the breeding male carries a train of tail feathers twice the length of his body. In full display, these elaborate plumes are raised up and fanned to create a dazzling arc that has inspired human pageants and parades the world over. Right now, there are no hens about and so the cock holds his tail flat as he approaches a waterhole to quench its thirst.

Almost as remarkable as the bejewelled visage of a peacock, is how unmoved so many people are at seeing one. Were this improbable creature not such an ubiquitous presence in animal parks, farmyards and estate gardens all around the world, it might rank alongside the Resplendent Quetzal or Wilson’s Birds-of-Paradise as the most decorative of all birds. As it is, many of us have grown up seeing these elaborate fowl alongside turkeys, geese and chickens, scratching about in yards or crying out from the roofs of barns and even suburban houses. All of them a long, long way from their true home.

Familiarity may have diminished the peacock’s lustre in mundane, man-made settings, but not here in India. Not here in Gujurat. Here it is the prince of the Gir forest keeping royal company with lions, leopards, monkeys and deer.

Gir National Park, Gujurat, India. March 2017

Note: The name peacock refers to the male peafowl, a member of the family Phasianidae; females are known as peahens. There are actually two species of peafowl, the Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), and the Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus) of Thailand and other parts of SE Asia.

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