With their massive tails and iridescent colors, peacocks have long fascinated their human observers—and we’re still learning their secrets.
For example, a study in The British Journal of Animal Behaviour suggests that when a peacock fans its dazzling train for the ladies during mating season, its quivering feathers emit and amplify 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.
Here are a few other interesting facts about these impressive birds.
1. Only the male birds are actually “peacocks.”
The collective name for birds in the genus Pavo is “peafowl.” There are two species of peafowl: the Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) and the Congo peafowl (Pavo muticus). The males of both species are called peacocks, females are peahens, and the babies are peachicks.
2. A family of peafowl is called a bevy.
3. Peacocks are not born with their fancy tail feathers.
The male peachicks don’t start growing their showy trains until about age 3. In fact, it’s hard to tell the sex of a peachick because they’re nearly identical to their mothers. At around 6 months old, the males will begin to change color.
4. Peacocks 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. Peacocks 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 at a time.
6. There are all-white peafowl.
Thanks to selective breeding, it’s common for captive peafowl to have only white feathers. This is called leucism, and it’s due to a genetic mutation that causes loss of pigmentation in some of the birds’ pigment-producing cells. These peafowl are often mistaken for being albino, but instead of having red eyes, leucistic animals retain their normal eye color.
7. Peacocks were a delicacy in medieval Europe.
The birds were plucked, roasted, and then re-dressed in their feathers for the dinner table. The birds may have looked beautiful, but they reportedly tasted terrible. The meat “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. Peacocks can send mixed signals to peahens.
These birds aren’t just nice to look at—they’re also clever, according to a review in the journal The American Naturalist.
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. By doing so, he may be signaling to females that he’s more sexually experienced—and thus more genetically fit—than other peacocks in the neighborhood. Dakin and Montgomerie found that a third of the calls were fake, and the birds that made them scored more hookups. Sneaky.
9. Peacock feathers are covered in tiny crystal-like structures.
What makes the some of the peacock’s feathers so brilliant? Microscopic structures that reflect different wavelengths of light depending on how they’re spaced, resulting in bright fluorescent colors. Hummingbirds and shimmering butterflies demonstrate a similar visual effect on their own wings.
10. Their crests act like sensors for mates.
A female peacock has special sensors in her crest that allow her to feel the vibrations of mate who may be located far away. The feathers are “tuned to vibrate at the exact same frequencies at which a displaying peacock rattles his tail,” according to The Atlantic. 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.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.