Animal Tales

Beautiful Birds


One of the best parts of spring and summer at the Milwaukee County Zoo is seeing the free-range peacocks spread their gorgeous trains as they compete for mates. Indian peafowl have been a feature at the Zoo for more than 100 years, dating back to the Zoo’s original site in Washington Park. Here, bird curator Alex Waier and Zoo registrar Faith Benassi answer some of the most common questions about the dramatic birds.

How many Indian peafowl does the Zoo have?

42 currently.

How long has the Zoo had peafowl?

The first record of peafowl at the Zoo is in July 1908, when three male peacocks were purchased. The first peahen arrived in 1917.

How do you keep the peafowl from leaving the Zoo?

They stay on the Zoo grounds because we feed them and it is a safe place with many trees to roost in. They occasionally jump the fence during breeding season, but they usually stay very close to the Zoo borders.

What do they like to eat?

We feed them in many areas around the Zoo where they tend to already congregate, such as near the polar bear, the bird building and Macaque Island. They eat the same food that our other gallinaceous (pheasant-like) birds eat, including game bird mix, chopped up fruit and veggies, dog food and insects. Unofficially they will eat almost anything they can forage in the woods or that a guest drops on the ground, but we discourage this behavior from guests as it is not nutritionally what peafowl should get.

Since peafowl live in India, where it’s warm, how do they adjust to winter here?

They have adapted, like many birds do, to our winters. Many species of birds can adapt to temperatures outside those of their native range.

If you find a peacock feather, is it OK to pick it up and take it home?

Yes, you can take the feather home. But like anything you find on the ground, it has potential to carry all sorts of germs, so I always ask people to make sure they wash their hands after handling a feather. And please don’t ever chase the peafowl or touch them. This is their home, and we want to treat them well.

It’s never OK to try to pull a feather off of a peacock.

Here are some fun facts about peafowl:

  • Only the males are called peacocks. The females are peahens, and babies are peachicks.
  • The beautiful feathers that the peacock spreads are the train, not the tail. The train covers his tail, which is made up of the brown feathers underneath.
  • Peacocks grow their first train in their second year, and it grows longer and more vibrant each year until age 5 or 6, according to the San Diego Zoo. Females prefer the males with the longest and most beautiful trains. Not incidentally, these are the toughest peacocks that have survived long enough to sport an impressive train.
  • The spots on a peacock’s train are called ocelli, which means “little eyes” in Latin.
  • Peahens are dull brown so they can camouflage themselves with their surroundings to protect their young.

This article appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Alive magazine.