Peafowl hardly seem to be a fit for the harsh climate of New Mexico. Whereas native birds have adapted to desert conditions with camouflage and smaller frames to better fit into crevices and burrows, peacocks exhibit 200 ornate, glittering feathers and can weigh up to 13 pounds with a 6-foot long “train,” the tail feathers they drag behind them. Despite these hindrances, peafowl have thrived in New Mexico even as native species decline. Their presence here, so far removed from their native India, is a testament to both their temerity and their captivating beauty.
I spoke with Alicia, a zookeeper at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo, about how peafowl came to New Mexico in the first place. While there isn’t a dearth of records regarding the first peafowl colony, we know this much: In the 1880s, the eccentric founder of Arcadia, Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin brought some 50 of the birds back from his trip to India and let them roam his 8,000-acre ranch. The peafowl proved to be useful to ranch operations, eating snakes and snails and letting out their piercing alarm call at the sight of a predator. By 1947, the ranch had been mostly sold off and the peafowl no longer had the expansive area they once roamed, leading them to spread out to the surrounding community. No exact record of the peafowl population in New Mexico exists, but it’s thought that some peacocks, descendents from Baldwin’s original colony, were taken west as pets and escaped their enclosures, as many people assumed peafowl were incapable of flight. Alicia explained part of the reason for their survival and propagation is their omnivorous diet and their “eat first, ask if it tastes good later” approach to food. “They’re very similar to chickens in that respect,” and much like chickens, you can see their dinosaur ancestry when they’re on the hunt for insects.
The peafowl at the BioPark were never purchased: zoo staff simply began feeding them and setting aside space for them to roost and seek shelter during the cold and that became a de facto habitat for them. The peafowl spend their days dust bathing, sunbathing or wooing a mate (peacocks form harems of up to five peahens during mating season). Despite being an invasive species, peafowl aren’t especially harmful to local ecosystems since they largely stay near heavily populated areas. But they aren’t without their detractors — peacocks can be aggressively territorial and have been known to chase after whoever unknowingly crosses into their turf. They eat gardens, peck at car fenders, and leave behind droppings befitting their large size. The biggest complaint is their mating call, a high-pitched screech that can be heard from blocks away.
In my conversation with Alicia I noted that typically the more colorful and sexually dimorphic a species of bird is the harder time they have surviving, but the opposite is true in the case of peafowl. She brought up the theory of “runaway selection,” a sexual selection mechanism proposed by Ronald Fisher in the 1900s to explain extreme male ornamentation through persistent, intentional female choice. Seemingly maladaptive traits, like a peacock’s train of tail feathers, are the result of female preference overriding natural selection, and within a few generations this preference would lead to runaway selection through positive feedback, exponentially increasing the occurrences of the trait.
I also had the chance to speak with a caretaker at the Taos Ashram about our local peafowl population and their spiritual significance. Peacocks have been a staple of spiritual and religious beliefs for centuries: they are mentioned as denizens of the Garden of Eden, they were symbols of immortality during Roman times as people noticed their feathers never lost their luster, and they feature heavily in the Hindu pantheon, with the god Ganesh using a peacock as his steed. The Hanuman devotees see peafowl as the playful form of the god Krishna and take pride in the care they give to them. They get all the cat food and oyster shells they can eat and have a large enclosure that keeps them warm at night and safe from local predators like foxes and weasels. The ashram has cared for peafowl for about ten years, and the peafowl in turn are more domestic than most. They freely wander into the kitchen or temple if it suits them and even allow themselves to be herded (sometimes). Peafowl in captivity have been known to liveup to 50 years, so with some luck the Taos peacocks will be around for decades more.