Casting Some Reflections on the Peacock's "I"
Smithsonian, December 1984

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IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS, when it came to nature, a fellow could count on all sorts of useful stereotypes. Pigs were dirty. Doves were peaceful. Peacocks were proud. And bulls grew angry at the color red. Wolves, of course, were much given to slavering after trappers and troikas in hopes of alfresco steak Tartar.

But in this voluble age of animal behaviorism, all is changed. Pigs are immaculate. Doves quarrel bitterly and sometimes peck one another to death out of sheer pique. Bulls seem to be color-blind. As for wolves, everybody knows they have given up slavering in favor of monogamy and self-discipline. If a wolf kills a caribou these days, it is only to keep the quality of the herd up to scratch.

After such disclosures, who would bet a buffalo nickel on peacock pride? Surely some zealous bird person will come forward with a photograph of crestfallen peacocks tucking into a dish of humble pie. But so far no one has. And I, for one, faced with a certain amount of anecdotal evidence, am getting back some of my old confidence in the pride of the peacock.

The birds, to be sure, are only fancy pheasants greatly enhanced by myth and literature. In Southern Asia, though, where they originated, peacocks were regarded as royal creatures and it was claimed 1) that they deterred serpents, 2) that their raucous cries warned of approaching tigers, and 3) that their beautiful "eyes" could ward off bad luck.

The ancient Greeks, however, knew that peacocks got their "eyes" from Mount Olympus. When Zeus warmed up to Io, a lovely creature, Hera, the jealous Queen of the Gods, cleverly hired Argus, a giant with 100 eyes, to watch them. Uncleverly, Argus fell asleep on the job. A discomfited Hera plucked out his eyes and flung them at the (till then) unmarked tail of her favorite bird.

As the birds migrated farther westward their reputation declined. In medieval Europe, thanks to their apparent fondness for vainglorious display, they became symbols of vanity, a minor form of pride, at a time when PRIDE was seen as the deadliest of sins. In art, even one measly peacock feather on a lady's fan or a serving-boy's hat was a sure tip-off to viewers that the painter was making a point about pride or the vanity of human wishes.

By the late l700s, in England, poet William Blake belatedly did something for the birds' public image when he wrote: "The pride of the peacock is the glory of God." A splendid line, but not entirely convincing because, despite his genius, everyone knew Blake was sometimes crazy as a hoot owl.

a mixture of raucous shriek and choking screamI met my first peacock during a tour of a stately home in England, after hearing a really awful sound. It was a mixture of raucous shriek and choking scream, such as an especially horrid governess might emit if set upon by some blackhearted butler. And there stood a solitary peacock. Such a scream, given in such a decorous place, whether or not it bespoke real pride, at least suggested arrogance.

Shortly afterwards I visited a friend near London who was renting a creamy 18th-century house. It came with a walled garden big enough for the Super Bowl - and a pair of peacocks.

Could they fly? I wanted to know. Well, yes, they could fly, though not very well (no source of pride there, I thought). But they did keep flapping their way over the garden wall. Neighbors complained. Police came. My friend built the birds a better house. Talked to them sternly. Spoke of reviving peacocks' tongues as a delicacy. Nothing availed.

Until one neighbor complained that the birds kept coming to his house and looking in at his French doors. Looking in at the French doors? Yes. Next time the irate neighbor called, my friend let himself out his garden gate and edged on little cat feet up the path. There were his birds, in front of the French doors. And suddenly, looking over their shoulders, he saw the truth. Not looking in. Looking at. Proud as could be. He bought a polished metal mirror, three feet square (so the pair could enjoy themselves without crowding) and stuck it in his garden. The birds became instant homebodies. And highly reflective.

With their trains fanned out, peacocks are handsome. But these didn't always spread their fans. The female, moreover, had no display to speak of. Tongues aside, peacocks aren't much to eat. They have ugly feet and when they walk they seem the epitome of gawky, febrile uselessness.

Beauty, however, is only skin deep. Perhaps, I reflected, they have something to be proud of that we don't know about. As if in answer to this thought I ran into a woman just back from a trip to Oklahoma, where she had been a guest at a huge "Shoot no, honey, they keep down the rattlesnakes..."ranch. Along with various structures useful for cattle, the owners had put up a small model of the Petit Trianon, or some such Old World folly, and there were peacocks sashaying around. "Perfect!" the guest gushed to her hostess. "You even have peacocks for authenticity."

"Shoot no, honey," came the reply.

"We got the little suckers 'cause they keep down the rattlesnakes."

Handsome is as handsome does. Peacocks, stand tall!