HISTORY OF PEAFOWL IN CAPTIVITY
By Marion Smith
Though peafowl have been around a very long time in captivity, many of us are extremely ignorant concerning the history of the domestication of the species. Since this is the introductory issue of the magazine, I felt it would be appropriate to present a little background on peafowl and how they have interacted with man over the years. Initially though, let me say that I hope to be able to feature a different mutation/breed of peafowl in each issue of THE PEACOCK JOURNAL.
Peafowl belong to the same family of birds as pheasants and chickens- phasianidae. They are native primarily to the continent of Asia, the countries being India, Burma, Java, and Malaya. There is also a peafowl native to the African Congo – that being the Congo peafowl.
It would be stretching the imagination to say the Congo peafowl has been domesticated to anything other than a very limited degree. There have been a few somewhat successfully kept and bred in zoos, but they have survived only in planted indoor aviaries with rigid temperature control. These birds are not much larger than standard size chickens with the males being crested but having no real trains. The males are basically dark green with the females being a light brown and and chestnut mixes with green.
The greens have been domesticated but still not nearly with the success the Blues have. Greens are native to Burma, Siam, Indochina, Malaya, and Java. In America the Greens are usually generically referred to as Javas or Java Greens. They sometimes have a reputation of being flighty with savage or unfriendly dispositions. It is most certainly true that they cannot withstand low temperature extremes.
Actually, there are distinguishing characteristics separating the three different families of Greens occuring in the wild. Pavo muticus spiciferus is found in Burma and is bluer. Pavo muticus imperator from Indochina has some wing barring, and Pavo muticus muticus from Java is what is typically encountered in the U. S. as Java Greens.
Probably not many people would argue that if there is a standard peafowl, it is the blue. It was these that were originally scattered throughout the civilized world. Loyl Stromberg has stated that the Phonecians were the first to import the blues, having brought them to Egypt. It is found that by the fourteenth century, these birds could be found all over Europe but were still quite rare and confined mostly to royalty and persons of means. It is interesting to note that the early church valued the peacock as a religious symbol.
Practically all the known peafowl mutations occur in the India Blues. To my knowledge the first documented Blue mutation was the blackshoulder. Those of you more learned in peafowl history than I may wish to enlighten us on this, but I believe the blackshoulder mutation dates back to approximately 1830 and was documented in the U.S.
Turning to the whites and pieds, there most likely are a few whites occurring in the wild. Most birds and animals do have a naturally occurring gene that eliminates coloring. It is usually recessive as in the white peafowl. Many have declared whites to be albino, but this is not the case. I do not know the first documented case of white peafowl in captivity. While it may be stated that pieds are a cross between blues
and whites, breeding to produce good pieds is actually much more complicated than that. Breeding blues to whites usually produces first generation birds that are predominantly blue with white being only in the wing primaries and barely visible. Truly beautiful to me are the pieds that are liberally splashed all over with white but especially those with white on the back and tail. To produce birds of this quality can take several generations of very selective breeding of only the best offspring with other desirable pieds or whites. In my opinion, a good pied is as highly valued as any other bird because of the difficulty in breeding to produce them.
Probably the most recent pure blue mutation is the cameo, and it is the only known sex – linked mutation in peafowl. Now before you say “Wait a minute! Cameos have a little bit of green in them”, let me say that you are right, but the original cameo was a hen hatched by Mr. Oscar Mulloy of Maine. It was believed to come from a mating of blackshoulders and was of a silver hue. There was a great deal of experimentation done to produce uniformity and it was at some point in the latter stages that the green blood was mixed in. Concerning the sex – linked characteristic of the cameo mutation, I will give a couple of examples to illustrate. If a cameo male is bred to a blue female, the male offspring will be cameo and the female offspring will be blue. It is also exemplary that blue females cannot carry the cameo gene while males can. As to how many peafowl are currently kept in the U. S., the exact number is not known but would certainly number in the thousands. There have always been a few running loose on farms and ranches. However, they have never been a table bird and their acute screams during breeding season have discouraged or prevented many from keeping them as livestock. As to category, I would say they range from standard poultry with the blues to the exotic category with some of the more scarce mutations such as the cameo.
If this is correct, then there will be a surge in demand for exotic peafowl over the next few years since the exotic market in general is growing in popularity as farmers and ranchers move away from the old standard livestock of cattle and chickens to more money – producing livestock ventures. Exotic peafowl are certainly more affordable at this point than are alpacas and ostriches and are generally easier to raise. If recent trends are any indication, then we are already experiencing a rise in demand. Prices are up and there appears to be a healthy market interest at present.
Will peafowl prices soar to unbelievable levels like the ratites have? Who knows. I’ll tell you one thing though, it’s all in market demand, and I’d personally like to be around if it happens.
This article originally appeared in Volume 1, Number 1 of The Peacock Journal. This article is reprinted here with permission from the author. Reproduction elsewhere in any form without prior consent from the UPA is strictly prohibited. © 1999