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The White Peacock

Whomever you come across in India, be it on the shores of Chennai, or around the narrow alleys of Chandi Chowk, or even deep within the snow capped mountains of the Himalayas, all will be able to recognise the peacock. Partly to do with why the peafowl is the national bird of India is that they can be seen all over the country, their presence is unavoidable. At Jawai, it’s no different. every corner you turn, five run off to the concealment of the prosopis juliflora, every hill you climb, ten frantically flap their wings in frightful flight, every valley you traverse, the unmistakable shrill cry of twenty resonates through the scrub. In short, peafowl are ubiquitous throughout the area. Although their colours and plumage are majestically magnificent, it isn’t a huge surprise to come across one while out on our drives…. well, until now.

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Photograph by Himmat Guram.

On a spring morning with the warming sun escaping the grasp of the Aravali mountain range, we were heading to where one of our jeeps had sighted a mother with her three cubs. As we were heading towards the sighting, we moved around a bend and came across this bevy of peafowl moving up onto the rock to begin their customary aubade, so far nothing extraordinary.  However, nestled within the ostentation was this pearly white bird, pavonine in form but lacking their typical iridescence.

 

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Photograph by Himmat Guram.

It’s been much debated whether white forms of any bird should be classed as albinism or leucism. At the foundation of this debate is the ambiguity on leucism’s definition. However without a tedious treatise of different scholars’ definition, the general consensus that scholars nowadays follow has been based C. Harrison’s approach that leucistic species will have melanin in the body but either have a complete deficiency of melanin in the plumage or a partial loss in pigmentation. On the other hand Albinism is a genetic mutation where the species aren’t able to produce the enzyme tyrosinase which catalyses the production of melanin, a dark pigment that is present in much of animals’ outer body parts (e.g. eyes, skin, feathers, scales and hair). This pigment has a host of benefits for the body, most notably protecting the body against the heat and ultraviolet rays of the sun. That sun-kissed skin everyone goes crazy for is the work of melanin, but in reality that a tan is your body’s and melanin’s way of protecting your skin from further damage. It is a complete myth that having a tan decreases the chance of sunburn (a tan has the SPF value of 2-4, well under the protection a sun cream offers). However, I’m not here to sound like your doctor or even your worrying parents. A most common indicator of albinism in animals is the lack of pigment in the iris, the part of the eye that limits the amount of sun to enter. This deficiency can make the eye look slightly red.


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Photograph by William Asquith.
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Photograph by William Asquith.


 

Therefore although it would be very easy to class that this beautiful white creature was an albino, the pigmentation in the eyes seems to make this peacock leucistic. His legs too seem to show a similar colour to the normal which again shows that this peacock had melanin within his body.  Finally under close examination of his plumage, you can see that there is a stipple of black feathers on his plumage which again shows that he cannot be albino.

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Photograph by Himmat Guram.

 

Sadly, in the wild these white feathers do have its disadvantages. Peacocks’ usual colourful plumages are dark enough to avoid the detection of a spying predator. The white peacock will have his work cut out is his battle to stay concealed from predators both during both day and night. Furthermore, although to the eye of the human, his uniqueness has the aesthetic beauty equal to Grace Kelly, to his fellow peafowl he may struggle to find a mate. The vivid colours are mainly used to attract and woo females into mating and those with the most resplendent ruffle is the winner… lets then hope the females don’t think foul of our male white peafowl.

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