Farming Magazine - September, 2011
Small Livestock: Adding Intrigue to Your Farmstead With Peafowl
When I was just a sprout and growing up in rural New Hampshire, a particularly hot, humid summer day meant a late-afternoon trip to a local pond where some family friends owned a camp. On the way, we would pass a small farm that kept a peacock and his mate in an enormous pen within viewing distance of the road. The anticipation - Would the male be displaying? - was nearly as exciting as that few-second glimpse I managed to snag as we cruised past. Boy, what an impression.
The peafowl we are most familiar with is the India blue. The rare green peafowl, native to Indo China, Malaya, Java, Thailand and Burma, is also in captivity. Both species thrive in jungle-like habitat, where they forage and nest in the thick understory and roost in the canopy at night. Their ability to kill and consume young cobras and let out a shrill croak or two whenever a tiger is near places them in high esteem with the local people.
Peafowl are in the family Phasianidae, along with turkeys, pheasants, grouse and partridges. The male is a peacock, the female a peahen. While a peahen can lay a fertile egg after turning a year old, she typically attains reproductive maturity at 2 years. The male reaches maturity at 3 years, and his tail train, as it is referred to, will continue to lengthen and fill out until he is around 6 years old. A healthy peacock in his prime can be mated with up to five peahens.
Egg laying begins in April. In captivity, nest sites range from straw-lined, old tires to secluded depressions in tall vegetation. The hen will lay an egg every other day until she's reached a full clutch, typically seven to 10 eggs. At this point, she will set, brood and not lay another egg until the following breeding season. If you remove eggs as they are laid, she will produce well over two dozen eggs until the breeding cycle ends, typically late summer. Fertile eggs can be artificially incubated at 99 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a wet bulb temperature of 86 to 87 degrees Fahrenheit. In such environs, eggs will hatch in 27 to 30 days. Broody chickens may also be employed to incubate the eggs up to two days before hatching, at which point the eggs should be removed and placed in an egg hatcher. If the eggs are not removed before hatching, the hen might become so disturbed by what cometh that she removes herself, and the remaining eggs, from the nest never to return.
Peachicks should be kept at 95 degrees for the first week. The temperature can then be dropped by 5 degrees with each passing week, until it is on par with average daily temperatures. Under these conditions, peachicks will grow, and grow fast. Be prepared for mature birds that require a significant amount of space, and if you want to be certain your investments stick around or that they don't become a local canid's breakfast, you'll have to create a containment area, or flight pen, that suits their needs. A peafowl pen should measure at least 6 feet high and 10 feet wide, and its length depends on the number of birds enclosed. For a peacock and two peahens, you are looking at a minimum of 20 feet. Once the pen is built, netting should be applied to the walls and roof. These birds can, and will, fly if given the opportunity. You'll also need a fully enclosed shelter at one end to protect them from rain, wind and subfreezing temperatures. For that trio, the enclosed shelter should measure 8 by 8 by 6 feet and include a place to roost. Ideally, for our northern climate, the roost should be a flat board rather than a pole or log. When gripping a round roost, a bird's toes are exposed and susceptible to frostbite.
In the wild, peafowl eat vegetation, including flowers, seed heads and leaves, insects, reptiles and amphibians. In captivity, you'll find folks feeding peafowl chicks the same rations pheasant breeders use: starter feed for six months, then a game bird grower feed until they are one year old. Mature birds are fed a game bird maintenance feed during the nonbreeding season and a game bird layer feed during the breeding season. They also eat shelled and cracked corn, oats, grass, forbs, insects and other small, unsuspecting critters when given the opportunity.
The going rate for peafowl depends on the color variety. The India blue is easily found, considered the heartier of the bunch and easier on the wallet than the green species that is not so common and difficult to keep in these northern latitudes due to its sensitivity to cold temperatures. The price for a day-old India blue chick can range from $20 (unsexed) to $38 (sexed). Juvenile pairs start at $90, and an adult blue peacock can run you $150 or more. Meanwhile, an adult pair of the green variety can cost upwards of $500. Breeders have also selected for and developed well over 100 color variants, from pure white to peach, bronze, purple and black. You will pay roughly twice as much for these. Fertilized eggs are another option. I have seen ads offering a half-dozen for $100.
Can you get a return on such an investment, other than the enjoyment that comes with observing such gorgeous, exotic birds day in and day out? If you have a breeding pair, sell those fertile eggs or chicks to folks in this region. And when the male sheds his tail in late summer, collect those feathers and either sell them as is (for flower arrangements, decoration and crafting) or use them to create a unique craft that you can sell at the local farmers' market. I would bet competition is slim to none when it comes to local peacock art.
Peafowl are an investment and not just a financial one: a well- cared-for bird can live up to 50 years - and you thought that donkey in the back pasture lived a long time. They form fond memories, though, ones that stick for a long time to come.
The author, a regular contributor to Farming, is a biologist who lives and farms in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.