Sunday, October 12, 2014

Animals of Cottage and Castle: Peacocks and Swans

by Katherine Ashe

While the cottagers and townsmen were celebrating Christmas with roast goose, the lord of the manor, if he was wealthy enough, was feasting upon peacock pie or roasted swan. When it wasn’t holiday feasting time, the grandeur of the seignorial manse was secured by these ornamental birds floating in the moat or preening upon a balustrade.


There are strains of peafowl that are cross bred for color variations, but the gorgeous creature universally recognized as “peacock” is nature’s own art work with blue or green breast and neck, tail of gold with gilded “eyes,” or all white like an immense snowflake on legs.

Darwin used the peacock as an example of sexual selection in the development of species. It has been shown that peahens will choose to mate with a cock whose tail displays the most “eyes.” Since each fully developed tail feather terminates in one “eye,” the bird with the most “eyes” has the most tail feathers, is the most robust, and (it has been documented) fathers the most hearty chicks. So the peahen is choosing wisely.

While peafowl seem to have come originally from India, the bird was well known in Babylon, reaching Greece and Rome apparently through the trade that burgeoned from Alexander’s conquests. The Yazidis, of whom we’ve heard much recently, apparently hold as their God of World Creation a fallen and redeemed angel whose aspect or symbol is that of the peacock. In Persia the peacock, as portrayed in the Peacock Throne of Persian kings, was symbolic of the godly guardianship of the monarchy, perhaps suggesting a shared hieratic source.

The Greeks, being introduced to such an astonishing creature, of course had to integrate it into their own pantheon. Hence, Hera’s chariot is drawn by peacocks. And the peacock’s tail is claimed a memorial to Hera’s henchman, Argus of the Thousand Eyes. Aesop, turning myth into wise fable, has the peacock beg Hera that she give him a voice as lovely as the nightingale; truly it’s only his due as her favorite bird. But Hera refuses, saying what we all should bear in mind: be satisfied with your virtues and don’t presume to be first in everything.

And that brings us to the issue of the peacock’s voice – which is dreadful. As the writer Flannery O’Connor observed, “Makes better eatin’ than listenin.’” Once, strolling on the ramparts of York past midnight (I’d promised myself I’d return to my hotel when the sun went down, but at 1:00 A.M., the sun was still lolling on the horizon behind a row of trees in the park) I distinctly heard screams, well articulated “Help! Help!” I rushed to a policeman to report what I was sure must be a murder in progress. He laughed – that was the voice of a resident peacock.

Not all peacocks seem to speak English, but they all give voice alarmingly.

And yes, they can fly. They seem very large but they weigh only about eight to ten pounds, the size of a large roasting chicken such as the Jersey Giant. They have a broad wing spread that gives them the “lift” they need. The tail, folded as it usually is, flops along through the air behind them, looking rather silly.

While the birds eat and nest on the ground, they roost high up in trees, on rooftops and parapets. They can be kept in henhouses with perches high enough to keep their tails above the ground. They’re omnivores, dining on chicken feed, bugs, greens and bread you offer them by hand. It’s not true that peafowl don’t mix well with other fowl; our peacocks were, of course, the monarchs of the hen house, the dominant male, Strephon, enjoying a serene observation of the doings of the hens while our other, Sacheverell, would descend from the high perch to arbitrate any scrapping among the hens by coming between the combatants and eyeing them sternly until they waddled off in opposite directions.

The chief evidence of peacock intelligence is their showmanship. They display not only to prospective peahen brides, but to anyone whose interest they deem worthy. Normally the tail trails on the ground for several feet behind the bird, but it will begin to shiver, then with repeated effort as if hefting a great weight, the tail will gradually rise until it makes a near circle at full height and touches the ground on either side. Then the bird will seek the direction of the sun, revolving slowly until he knows he’s full in nature’s spotlight. Eyeing you to be sure you’re watching, he will shiver the feathers so their golden barbs sparkle and the gold-rimmed dark eyes gleam. If you remain fixed to the spot in utter dazzlement – as you ought – he may continue his show for twenty minutes or more, varying his display by turning slightly from side to side to change how the light plays upon him, or slightly gathering then fully spreading his tail again with a dramatic shiver, or bowing and arching himself, until at last he feels you’ve paid sufficient obeisance to his beauty.

The tragedy of the peacock’s life is that he loses his tail every autumn. Those tail feathers one may buy are not plucked but gathered from the ground. Bereft of his glorious appendage, the peacock retreats to an obscure perch and sulks. A peacock we’d given a friend absconded to join a flock of wild turkeys where, no doubt, he was king as, with turkeys too, magnificence of tail fan bestows dominance. But, come autumn, he no longer could lord it among the turkeys.

A word about the peahen. She’s brownish and looks like a real bird, not a Cecil B. deMille extravaganza. For her, the fanning of a fellow’s tail is rather a bore. But oh! when he shimmies it in the sunlight that may move her to consider if he’s grand enough for her to marry. Her chicks will be little fluffy brown critters and may show tiny signs of blue iridescence if they’re males. If you acquire a pair of peafowl, keep them confined until they bring up a brood, then they may be set free and consider your manse their home. If released sooner they may trot away, and peacock wrangling can be exhausting.

It isn’t hard to catch a full grown peacock once you have him cornered. Put your arms around his wings and lift him. Transferring him to another home is fairly easy too. Spread out a blanket and carefully lay him down on it, holding his wings shut and staying clear of his claws and spurs. Then wrap him up, like Cleopatra in her carpet, being sure his head is fully covered yet he can breathe. What you’ll have is a five- or six-foot roll of blanket covering him from top of head to tip of tail. He’ll stay quiet like that for a drive nearly up to an hour. If transport further than that is needed, I suggest you start with chicks. Murray McMurray Hatchery in the U.S. has peachicks by catalog and mail order, along with a delightful array of fowl of all sorts.

How to cook a peacock: Slaughtering a peacock is beyond my ken, but peacock was a favorite dish from imperial Roman times through the Renaissance.

First, the peacock must be killed in such a way as to not damage his tail, wings, breast or back feathers because you want them intact. Remove the head, neck, breast, back and tail in one piece (this is definitely a recipe for the pros.) Madeleine Cosman’s Fabulous Feasts advises “Take a pecok, breke his necke, and kutte his throte, and fle him…” But this simply won’t due if you want a proper presentation.

Peacock meat is tough. It’s advised that an old bird be hung (upside down of course) for five days, a younger bird at least for two, to soften the meat. The Anglo Saxons considered peacock flesh unhealthy. We’ll turn to the Romans, who knew how to prepare just about anything. Anthimus suggests stewing the meat with a bit of honey and pepper. But Apicius gives us the recipe that Petronius Arbiter and Nero probably favored (adapted from Apicius, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome, edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling.)

"Wash and dress the fowl nicely. Put in a stew pot and add water, salt and dill. Parboil until half done, until the meat is hard. Remove and put the meat in a sauce pan to finish by braising with olive oil, broth, and a bunch of oregano and coriander. Crush together pepper, lovage, cumin, coriander and rue and moisten with reduced wine and honey. Add more of the bird’s own broth and vinegar, to taste. Put the sauce into a saucepan and thicken with roux."

Apicius seems to be satisfied merely to pour this sauce over the meat and serve it up. But this is not how the peacock appeared at a grand medieval lord’s table.

"Dice the meat and combine it with the sauce. Have ready an oval shaped pie crust (coffer, in medieval parlance.) Fill the crust with the meat and sauce mixture and place a pie crust cover over it. Now comes the splendid part. Wire the peacock’s neck erect, as in life. Carefully lift the peacock: head, neck, breast, wings, back and tail and place on the piecrust. Have ready a nest of gilded twigs, or preferably a nest actually made of gold extruded as wire and woven to simulate a bird’s nest. Place bird-covered pie into the nest, the wings spread over the nest, the tail flowing down. Your elaborately garbed steward, elevating the nest above his head so that the tail flows down his back, then solemnly bears your peacock pie to the feast.

"To serve: Using the neck as a handle, draw the bird backward to expose the pie beneath those beautiful gold scalloped back feathers. Cut and serve wedges as with any other pie."


Like the peacock, the swan is a work almost entirely of nature’s artistry. Although there are some seven kinds of swans, it’s the Mute Swan that is the bird of manorial pond and dining table. If the peacock is a symbol of pride and vanity, the swan is the image of wedded love. And for good reason: Mute Swans, with a life span of more than twenty years, may pair off as soon as they achieve full plumage and remain true to the chosen mate until death. The males join the females in building the nest and incubating the eggs and take an ardent protective interest in the hatchlings.

Peacocks belong to the southerly part of the Eurasian continent, thrive in the tropics and cannot survive snowy winters without shelter. But swans are birds of the north and don’t tolerate tropical heat well. Yet, where ponds freeze over, the big birds may migrate. The Mute Swan, like other swans and geese, can take to the air in V formation and fly south. To avoid such loss, keepers of swans trim their wings so they can’t fly.

There is a lovely photo of Edith Sitwell, age about five, carrying her pet peacock under her arm, his train of feathers trailing behind. Don’t expect such docility from your swan. I recall being in a veterinarian’s office when four hefty firemen brought in a swan from the town park’s pond for his annual wing-clip. They had managed to catch the swan and stuff him into a tall refrigerator carton. With beating wings and scrambling feet he kept emerging from the top of the carton, extending his long neck, snake like, and biting everyone in reach – which was everyone in the vet’s small waiting room. (This definitely put me off my eagerness to acquire swans.)

Swans, if they will stay with you, don’t really require much care if you can provide them with a pond of twenty acres at least which grows an abundance of pond weed. Swans are vegetarians. They may be induced to accept wads of bread from your hand. Polite swans will take the bread neatly without nipping you; if you do get bitten, it feels like a butter knife being slid down your finger. This is very mild compared with what a riled swan can do when he means to hurt.

The Romans recognized the attractions of swans by having Zeus transform himself into a swan to seduce Leda. She laid two (apparently double-yoked) eggs, one hatching out Castor and Pollux and the other bringing us those troublesome ladies, Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy.

Hohenschwangau Castle and village
Swans figure in the mythologies of northern countries, particularly Russia and Germany. There is the swan of Lohengrin, the knight of Hohenschwangau. And there is the Russian tale of the prince ravished with love for the enchanted Odette who has been turned into a swan. When the wicked sorcerer magically replaces Odette with his own daughter, Odile, at the prince’s presentation of his betrothed to his parent, the prince discovers the deception and in grief drowns himself in the Swan Lake. As reality imitates art, King Ludwig of Bavaria, 19th century owner of Lohengrin’s domains, in 1886 committed suicide like the prince in the tale by drowning himself in the Swan Lake. (A friend who is not given to such things swears that, on a winter day as she sat gazing at Hohenschwangau’s lake, she saw Ludwig ice skating with his lost love the Empress Elizabeth of Austria who was murdered in 1898.

The swan at table: Swans can increase in number in your pond prodigiously. Throttling one from time to time may be a necessity. (Once I visited the famed Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles: the entrance was graced by a reproduction of the gates of Buckingham Palace, and beyond lay a pond crammed with swans. But what do you expect from Hollywood?)

Preparing swan for m’lord’s table is nowhere near as complex as doing justice to a peacock pie. Hang the swan for the two to five days as is usual with big semi-wild birds. Pluck the skin and eviscerate the body as you would a turkey. Then the swan may simply be roasted.

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana says it all: (text anonymous; we thank the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

"Olim lacus colueram,
olim pulcher extiteram
dum cignus ego fueram.
Miser, miser!
modo niger
et ustus fortiter!"

Once in lakes I made my home, once I dwelt in beauty. That was when I was a swan. Alas, poor me! Now I’m black and roasted!


Katherine Ashe is the author of Montfort, the four-volume historical novel on the life of the medieval French knight who founded England’s Parliament:

Picture credits:
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Peacocks, Melchior d' Hondecoeter (Dutch, Utrecht 1636–1695 Amsterdam) 1683. Gift of Samuel H. Kress, 1927.
Peacock bird (on cornice):
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Terracotta disk with Aphrodite riding on a swan, 4th century B.C.: Rogers Fund, 1910.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Leda and the Swan, Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (French, Anizy-le-Château 1824–1887 Sèvres) ca. 1870: Rogers Fund and Mr. and Mrs. Claus von Bülow Gift, 1980.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Angry Swan, Jean-Baptiste Oudry
(French, Paris 1686–1755 Beauvais): Purchase, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson, Jr. Purchase Fund, 1970.


  1. This was a delightful post. I learned so much. I have always liked both peafowl and swans for their beauty, and was very happy to learn that those peacock feathers I admired as a child in stores came from the ground and not from plucking them from a live bird. As for swans, I think they are some of the most beautiful creatures that exist.

  2. Katherine, you have given us such pleasure with this detailed, informative, well-thought-out, beautifully illustrated and exceptionally pleasurable essay! I have never "met" a keeper of such fabulous birds, only admired them at historic homes (and swans in the nearby pond, which I ooh and ahh from afar, knowing they can be somewhat perilous to admirers...) Thank you very much for sharing your love and experience of these majestic creatures!


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