10 Feathery Facts About Peacocks

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iStock

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
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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.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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