Male peacocks keep eyes low when checking out competition

Tracking shows guys’ gaze may be tuned to feathers’ symmetry, width


BIRD’S EYE VIEW  The height and flashiness of a peacock’s display catches human eyes. But among peacocks gazing at other peacocks, priorities may be different.

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ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — Eye-tracking cameras show that peacocks checking out competing males keep their gaze low.

A bystander peacock attends to the other guy’s legs and the bottom tier of the huge feather display, Jessica Yorzinski of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., reported June 12 at the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society. The high arc of feathers with iridescent eyespots may dazzle people. But what matters to the peacocks might be the symmetry and maximum width judged at the bottom of the competition’s show, Yorzinski said.

This focus on lower feathers matches the female’s pattern of gaze. Yorzinski and colleagues pioneered eye-tracking technology for peafowl and in 2013 showed that the center of female gaze stays on the lower of the feather spread during courtship (SN: 8/24/13, p. 12). That is, during the 30 percent or so of time that a female even bothers to look at a male’s courtship display amid all the other things going on in the vicinity.

Yorzinski also collected eye-tracking data on males watching females. Peahens may not have the showy train of a male but they have lovely, shimmering neck feathers. Yet the body area males are least likely to glance at is the iridescent female neck and head.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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