Wight Life


by Marie Edwards

Drawing of a peacock

SAINHAM FARM lies in a fold of the hills near Godshill Church. Here, at night or in bad weather, high in the rafters of the old stone barn roost the peafowl which Mrs Cowley, the farmer's wife,breeds so successfully.

By day the peacocks strut importantly about the farmyards, pecking grain, or perambulate in their perfect setting — the walled lawns of the beautiful old farmhouse. No need for sales talk here — none is attempted — anyone interested in buying peacocks to grace their own gardens or grounds need go no further. Their gorgeous plumage glows with health as they peck the lush grass which helps to keep them in such perfect condition.

They are supposed to be temperamental birds — cold winds and damp can kill them off as quickly as any fox — but those bred at Sainham Farm are as hardy as can be found anywhere. When I enquired on behalf of a friend on the mainland, Mrs Cowley was selling two-year old males at £11.50 each and one-year old hens at £17 per pair and this he considered very reasonable compared with some mainland prices.

Apart from the pleasure of seeing them on his lawns he considers them as good as watchdogs, especially in spring, their mating time, for roosting unseen in the branches of trees around the house at 'night, they will, if disturbed, make their raucous unearthly cry, a cross between a 'honk' and a 'hoot' and the noise, not easily identifiable by someone unaware of them, would make any intruder hesitate, and certainly warn the household of his presence, not to mention any unfortunate neighbour within hearing distance. Which is why they should be kept in fairly isolated properties!

At Calbourne Mill too, several peafowl intrigue many of its visitors, the peacocks' brilliant colours glowing exotically in this so-English place of smooth green meadows through which the meandering stream, developing from a natural spring in the grounds of Westover Park,widens and deepens as it makes its leisurely way through Winkle Street towards the Mill.

The peacock, male of the pheasant family, has always been a symbol of splendour. The metallic blues, greens, golds, bronzes and the crest on his head make him the most spectacular of birds. The magnificent sweep of the feathers which trail behind him is his train, not his tail, and this gives him length and dignity. Yet, seen from the back when his train is extended in a fan above him he is comparatively small, and slightly ridiculous, with the very short sturdy quills of his real tail diminished even more by the huge arc of plumes above him, his soft downy rear looking pitifully unprotected — strange contrast to the fantastic display of his front view and the proud mystique which surrounds him.

,p>The covert feathers of his train are continually being extended in the mating season to attract the hen. This is when the colours are most brilliant and the rustling 'shirring' sound which accom- panies the quick vibrant movements of the plumes can be heard from many yards away.

The iridescence in the 'eye' of the feathers is not pigmented but is caused by a refraction of light on the structure of the feather. It will appear black if held parallel to rays of light. The train can reach to five feet long and the apex of the extended train on display to seven feet high.

One cock and three hens usually constitute a 'flock' and though they can fly quite high into the branches of trees where they are safe from foxes, they nest in low branches or on the ground, where the hen lays four to six eggs in the crude nest. The young birds, both male and female, look alike until they are about two years old, when the males' colours begin to emerge. The mortality rate among them is often high. Many peahens are casual mothers, and although her natural instincts tell her to fly directly off the nest instead of walking off when brooding her eggs so that her scent shall not lead predators to them, the newly hatched chicks must follow her immediately or be at the mercy of rats and foxes.

Originating in the sub-Continent of India and Ceylon the Common Peafowl — P. Cristatus — was domesticated in ancient times. The Greeks called the peacock Hera's Bird and to them and the Romans he is supposed to have represented Argus, the hundred-eyed mythical character whom the goddess Hera — or Juno — set to watch over lo, beloved of Hera's husband, Zeus. Legend has it that the music of Hermes whom Zeus had sent to fetch lo lulled Argus to sleep and, in a rage, Hera transplanted the eyes of Argus to the peacocks' covert.

The special feast dish of roast peacock in the Middle Ages was served up garnished with all its train feathers and woe betide any servant found in the possession of one! This probably accounts for the superstition that peacock feathers in the house are unlucky.Solemn oaths were sometimes sworn on the peacock. Under the Chinese Empire a peacock feather was awarded to the mandarins for public services. The background of the Mogul Emperors' Throne in Delhi was the figure of a peacock with its train displayed and made of gold and jewels.

The Japanese peacock has upper wing coverts of lustrous blue — the origin of the colour peacock-blue. The hen of the species is white and from this the sacred white peacock of India was probably developed, and the Burmese peacock, found also in Java and Malaysia, is probably the most gorgeous of them all.

In parts of the Southern Tyrol a dying craft still uses the dwindling expensive supply of peacock feathers — commanding 37p each in London!. Each coloured frond is drawn carefully into a needle and the 'eye' pattern faithfully restructured in delicate glowing embroidery into the elaborate designs on Tyrolean blouses and dresses. Or are woven into vivid rosettes for the ear-pieces of horses' harness worn on ceremonial occasions.

There is a fairy-tale, out-of-this-world quality about these birds. Out of their right setting they look alien, unlikely. With many other drivers on the road from Ryde to Newport recently, near Lushington Hill, I had to look twice to take in the unbelievable sight of a magnificent peacock, all his colours glittering in the sunshine, unshine, pacing his slow ostentatious way through the traffic from one side of the dusty road to the other, followed at a distance by his timid mate — oblivious, or uncaring of the fact that streams of traffic patiently awaited their safe arrival on the other side.