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

As told to Vinita Govindarajan.