Why Do Peacocks Spread Their Feathers?

By Gryphon Adams

The peacock's display of iridescent feathers with distinctive eyes shows his desirability as a mate. In addition to the magnificent visual display, when the peacock spreads his feathers they create a sound, inaudible to humans, that may improve his chances of mating. The lifestyle and habitats of peafowl give clues to the role of the male's feather display.

Indian Peafowl - Peacock
The peacock's plumage literally might broadcast his worthiness as a mate.
credit: eabris/iStock/Getty Images

Peacock and Peahen Lifestyle

Peafowl are pheasants. Peacock refers to the male of the species, although the term is often used informally to refer to peafowl in general. The female is a peahen and their offspring are peachicks. The male's long feathers, also called coverts, hang behind him like a dress train. These long, showy feathers make up more than 60 percent of his length, according to National Geographic. He uses them for courtship displays to attract a female for mating. In their natural habitats, peafowl roost in forest trees and feed on grass, insects and small prey. A pheasant diet is suitable for raising peafowl. Individuals generally weigh 9 to 13 pounds and live for up to 20 years.

The Mating Game

Peahens may be most attracted to peacocks with the largest, most colorful feathers, making these males the most successful at mating and passing on their genes. To show the quality of his feathers, he spreads his 5-foot train into a fan that projects above his back and to the ground on both sides of his body. Males who are the most successful at attracting females acquire a harem. In the wild, peahens live in groups called parties. Each female lays three to five eggs at a time, increasing the group's numbers.

Feather Facts and Selection Advantage

The male is larger than the female, and along with his enormous tail, boasts an impressive wingspan. He's one of the largest flying birds in the world.In addition to tailfeathers, he has contour feathers that make up his train that he fans out for courtship. Courtship season for peafowl generally begins in April but can vary by climate. This is the time of year when the male spreads his feathers. It's normal for the peacock to lose his feathers in mid-summer at the end of courtship season. If your peacock has peahens available and doesn't spread his feathers during mating season, consult your veterinarian.

Peacock Tail Sound Signals

When the male unfurls his shining feathers tipped with big eyes, he shakes them. The feathers vibrate from his movements. He brings his feathers forward into a bowl-shape around his body. This shape may act like a satellite dish to make sounds from the feathers more audible to other peafowl. The sounds of the feathers is infrasonic at below 20 Hz, according to researchers at the University of Manitoba.The researcher theorize the sound may attract females to come look at their display, warn other males away or allow females to judge the peacock's quality to decide whether or not to go look at him. In their natural, wooded environments, peafowl are often not in direct sight of each other, so the auditory signals may increase the odds of mating success.