10 Feathery Facts About Peacocks

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With its massive tail and iridescent colors, this bird has long fascinated its human observers—and we’re still learning its secrets. For example, a study recently published in The British Journal of Animal Behaviour says that when a peacock fans its ornamented train for the ladies during mating season, its feathers quiver, emitting a low-frequency sound inaudible to human ears. Depending on whether they want to attract females from far away or up close, they can change the sound by shaking different parts of their feathers. (They’re not the only animals that create infrasonic sounds. Elephants produce them with their vocal cords, most likely to communicate over long distances.) Here are a few other interesting facts about these impressive birds.

1. Only the males are actually “peacocks.”

The collective term for these birds is “peafowl.” The males are “peacocks” and the females are “peahens.” The babies are called “peachicks.”

2. A family of peafowl is called a “bevy.”

A group of the birds is also sometimes called an “ostentation,” a “muster,” or even a “party.”

3. They’re not born with their fancy tail feathers.

The male peachicks don’t start growing their showy trains until about age three. In fact, it’s hard to tell the sex of a peachick because they’re nearly identical to their mothers. At around six months, the males will begin to change color [PDF].

4. They don’t have to be killed for their feathers.

Luckily, the peacocks shed their train every year after mating season, so the feathers can be gathered and sold without the birds coming to any harm. The average lifespan of a peacock in the wild is about 20 years.

5. They can fly, despite their massive trains.

A peacock’s tail feathers can reach up to six feet long and make up about 60 percent of its body length. Despite these odd proportions, the bird flies just fine, if not very far.

6. There are all-white peafowl.

Thanks to selective breeding, it’s common for captive peafowl to buck the iridescent trend for all white feathers. This is called leucism, and it’s due to a genetic mutation that causes loss of pigmentation. These peafowl are often mistaken for being albino, but instead of having red eyes, animals with leucism retain their normal eye color.

7. Peacocks were a delicacy in medieval times.

The birds were plucked, roasted and then re-dressed in their feathers to appear in their original live state on the dinner table. Here’s the presentation instructions from one recipe:

“wynde the skyn
wit the fethurs and the taile abought
the body, And serue him forthe as he
were a-live”

The birds may have looked beautiful, but they reportedly tasted terrible. “It was tough and coarse, and was criticized by physicians for being difficult to digest and for generating bad humors,” writes Melitta Weiss Adamson in her book Food in Medieval Times.

8. They can fake it.

These birds aren’t just nice to look at, they’re also clever, according to one recent study.

When peacocks mate with peahens, they give out a loud “copulatory call.” Canadian researchers Roslyn Dakin and Robert Montgomerie discovered that the birds can “fake” this call to attract more females. As the BBC’s Ella Davies put it, “By pretending they are mating when they are not, the birds could convince females they are more sexually active—and therefore genetically fitter—than their rivals.”

In fact, one-third of the calls heard by researchers were fake, and the birds that made them scored the most hookups. Sneaky, sneaky.

9. Their feathers are covered in tiny crystal-like structures.

What makes the peacock’s feathers so brilliant? Microscopic “crystal-like structures” that reflect different wavelengths of light depending on how they’re spaced, resulting in bright fluorescent colors. Hummingbirds and shimmering butterflies have mastered a similar visual effect on their own wings.

10. A peacock's crest acts as a sensor for mating

Peacock Crest
iStock.com/f8grapher

A female peacock has special sensors in her crest that allow her to feel the vibrations of mate who may be located far away. According to The Atlantic, the feathers are "tuned to vibrate at the exact same frequencies at which a displaying peacock rattles his tail." Whenever a male peacock fans his tail, he shakes it at a rate of 26 times a second, creating a pressure-wave that literally rattles the female's head for attention. 

All images courtesy of iStock.

A Monkey Is On the Loose in Galveston, Texas—For the Second Time

Seregraff/iStock via Getty Images
Seregraff/iStock via Getty Images

Citizens of Galveston, Texas should keep their eyes peeled for a glimpse of a runaway capuchin monkey named Lilly.

According to Galveston’s The Daily News, Lilly went missing after her owner’s East End house was broken into on Monday, January 20. Local police don’t believe the thieves broke into the house in order to kidnap Lilly, so they’re assuming she escaped by herself during or after the crime. Initially, Lilly was believed to be dead, but according to Click 2 Houston, those reports were "premature" and police have resumed their search for the missing capuchin.

Galveston Police Department spokesperson Xavier Hancock told The Daily News that although Lilly is socialized, anybody who spots her shouldn’t try to catch her themselves—instead, they can call the police at 409-765-3702. Owning a monkey is against the law in Galveston, but the owner hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

It’s not the first time that the area has hosted an elusive monkey. Back in September, there were reported sightings of an unidentified primate swinging through the trees in the nearby town of Santa Fe. Though no monkey was ever found, the situation stirred up a fair amount of online discussion and more than a little misinformation.

Some had originally identified the animal as a chimpanzee, but Bayou Animal Services seemed confident that it was a small monkey—maybe a capuchin—rather than an ape. And The Daily News reported at the time that one website had published stock video footage of a monkey along with its report of the incident, which caused some people to think the animal in the video was the actual one on the loose.

The mystery of Santa Fe’s anonymous monkey probably won’t be solved, but hopefully Lilly will be located and brought to safety soon.

[h/t The Daily News]

16 Facts About Squirrels for Squirrel Appreciation Day

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iStock

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 16 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. Squirrels can jump really, really far.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet.

2. Squirrels are very organized.

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
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In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A 2017 study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. Squirrels are also forgetful, and that forgetfulness helps trees grow.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
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Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. Squirrels help truffles thrive.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. Squirrels are one of the few mammals that can sprint down a tree head-first.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
iStock

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. Several towns compete for the title of "Home of the White Squirrel."

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
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Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. Squirrels could aid in stroke research.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. Squirrel fur may have spread leprosy in the Middle Ages.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
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If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. Squirrels are more powerful than hackers.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. Squirrels can heat up their tails to ward off predators.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. Squirrels help scientists determine whether a forest is healthy.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
iStock

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. Squirrels can lie.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
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Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. Squirrels used to be America's most popular pet.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. The mere sight of just one squirrel could once attract a crowd.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. In the 19th century, squirrels were tasked with teaching compassion.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

16. Squirrels used to hate tax season, too.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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