animal world

Everything you wanted to know about peafowl sex, by a researcher who’s spent a decade studying it

Jessica Yorzinski says that peahens look at a peacock’s legs and base of its tail while choosing a mate.

On Wednesday, on his last day on the job before retiring, Rajasthan High Court judge MC Sharma decided to give India something to remember him with. Advocating for the cow to be made the national animal, the judge gave this explanation for why the peacock is India’s national bird. “The peacock is a lifelong brahmachari” or celibate, said the judge. “It never has sex with the peahen. The peahen gets pregnant after swallowing the tears of the peacock.”

The resulting memes nearly broke the internet. But experts who have actually spent years studying the mating behaviour of peafowl were slightly shocked. Among them was Jessica Yorzinzki, assistant professor at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences of Texas A&M University, US. She spoke to Scroll.in about her work.


Since I’ve been studying the mating behaviour of peafowl for the past ten years, it is definitely shocking to hear that statement. We all need to get on the same page of what is going on in the mating system of these birds.

There is no scientific validity in the claim that peafowl do not copulate.

There are many scientists that study the mating behaviour of animals. I particularly studied them in the peafowl. I just used it as a model system for understanding more generally how animals select their mates. I studied a captive population of about 40 birds in the United States. Several years ago, I visited Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, to study peafowl in the wild.

The reason I starting studying this is to primarily learn about animal behaviour, the decisions they make, what are the factors that influence how they choose their mating partners, how they deal with predators and so on.

Peafowl, in particular, have an unusual mating system. They are called a lekking species, a certain type of mating system where a female has the choice of the type of male she wants to mate with. If the female is not interested in the male, nothing can happen. The males set up display areas where they show off their feathers and the females have complete choice of which males they want to mate with.

This means that, generally speaking, females mate every season, and they mate with one male, multiple males or the same male multiple times. So they’re definitely engaging in a lot of copulatory behaviour.

In one of my studies, by attaching two small eye trackers on the peahen, I tried to find on what the females were looking at in a male while choosing the peacock they wanted to mate with. I found that they were actually directing their gaze towards the bottom portion of their bodies –
their legs and the base of their tails, rather than their head or brightly coloured feathers.

The males, however, can have a different story. There are a few successful males that get most of the copulation during a season. But some of the males who are not as attractive to the female may not get much copulation during the season if the females don’t choose them as a mate. The peacock cannot force himself on the peahen. The male, as everyone knows, displays his feathers and tries to persuade the female to mate with him. If she does not want to she will just wander on and check out the next male.

It is important that information is accurately portrayed about a species. We don’t want to perpetuate information that does not fit with the natural history of the animals that we’re talking about.

Credit: Jessica Yorzinski via Facebook
Credit: Jessica Yorzinski via Facebook

As told to Vinita Govindarajan.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.