Dear Judge, In Times Of 'Cloacal Kiss', Peahen Has No Time for Peacock Tears
A very widespread belief that has held strong hold over the minds of people throughout history is about debilitating nature of sex and that sexual abstinence results in virtues favoured by the gods.
Male peacocks, as also male in other bird species, do not secrete oestrogen and therefore develop male plumage like the showy train feathers of male peacock that it displays during the breeding season to attract females for copulation, writes KB Singh.
A Rajasthan High Court judge shared a baffling view on the national bird peacock on Wednesday when he described both cow and peacock to be “pious” and stated that “Peacock is a lifelong brahmachari. It never has sex with the peahen. The peahen gets pregnant after swallowing the tears of the peacock”.
The statement of the honourable judge brought to the fore a fact that in every culture, many animals and birds have provided a moral guidance to people since the dawn of history. Animals and other creatures of the God, including birds, have often been seen as role models. Just look at how many countries retain a bird in their national symbols, the bald eagle of the US being a prominent example.
A very widespread belief that has held strong hold over the minds of people throughout history is about debilitating nature of sex and that sexual abstinence results in virtues favoured by the gods. The statement of honourable judge, therefore, only perpetrates those ancient ideas that have no scientific rationale and even a casual natural history enthusiast will find them unacceptable.
Misogyny and patriarchal mindset are the bane of Indian society, however, even science can sometimes be sexist. Till recently, it was widely assumed that in birds male hormones controlled the male sexual characteristics — like the beautiful train that the peacock displays during the breeding season or the elaborating mating rituals and melodious songs in many species. The truth is, however, exactly opposite. Most male characteristics in birds are determined not by the testosterone present in the males, but by the absence of oestrogen, the hormone that defines a female. That really makes female of the bird species as the special one, while male is just the default sex.
Male peacocks, as also male in other bird species, do not secrete oestrogen and therefore develop male plumage like the showy train feathers of male peacock that it displays during the breeding season to attract females for copulation. In contrast, females secrete oestrogen and develop female plumage that is dramatically different in many bird species. A female that stops secreting oestrogen due to damaged reproductive organs may sometimes metamorphose into a male of the species. There are many examples of this spectacular transformation in birds.
When the honourable judge made his now-famous remarks about the peacock he talked about ‘virgin birth’, which is much favoured virtue in our mythology. We may readily recall the birth of Karna in Mahabharata but there are many such instances in our ancient texts.
Virgin birth is a fascinating sexual aberration. Many animals, including certain birds, can reproduce without sex, with no contribution from the male in a phenomenon known as parthenogenesis. However, in birds similar to peacock where parthenogenesis has been known to occur — chickens, turkeys, pigeons etc — development of the embryo has always been defective. It seldom lead to a normal embryo that could survive to become a hatchling. There are no recorded cases of parthenogenesis in peacocks. Therefore, copulation between males and females is a pre-requisite for creating a normal embryo that will lead to successful hatching of peacock chicks.
Males of few large birds such as swans, ducks and ostriches have a tiny penis, whereas most other birds, including the pheasants (large group of game birds that also includes peacock) and all small birds do not have it. In all these birds without penis, including in both sexes of peacock, the opening of the reproductive tract lies inside the cloaca (near the opening of the gut). The copulation comprises a quick coming together of the male and female cloaca in what is colloquially called as a “cloacal kiss”. In a few seconds that it takes for the male peacock to pass its sperms into the reproductive tracts of the female during this very brief sexual intercourse, there is certainly no time for her to wipe any tears of the peacock’s eyes!
Knowing that pair bonding and monogamy is a much celebrated virtue in our cultures, I am sure it will be interesting to know how the peacocks fare in their parental duties. The eminent ornithologist David Lack estimated that over 90 per cent of the birds are socially monogamous, an arrangement in which a male and female work together to rear offspring. However, the mating system followed by the peacock is called polygyny — males have several female partners and females visit the males only to copulate. Males, after copulation, have nothing to do with the hatching of eggs or rearing of young birds — all essential parental duties performed by the female singlehandedly. Our hero is, therefore, certainly not the best role model for virtues of parenthood.
In olden times, superstition and fear of god ruled over logic and common sense, but science has brought our understanding of the natural world around us a long way and dispelled many myths that surrounded sex of animals and birds. Scientific ideas have taken precedence leading to logical decisions and dispelling fear and mythology with these understandings. I do hope that learned men and women of our country make an effort to understand these as well.
(Kanwar B Singh is a retired Naval officer and an amateur ornithologist. He also coordinates the activities of Delhi Bird Group, a community of bird enthusiasts in national capital. Views are personal).
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