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Peacock - That Fabulous Pheasant
by Jo Meder


Click all article images for larger versions

Who's a handsome boy then?

If he knew how silly he looked from the back he wouldn't be so cocky.


Back feathers

Perhaps I'm the only person in the world who didn't know this, but I've only recently discovered that the peacock, or rather peafowl, is actually a pheasant. Given the amount of peacock plumage used in flies, along with the other pheasant species, this must make the pheasant one of the most important birds for fly fishing.

I guess most of us have come into contact with peacocks at one time or another. There used to be one which roamed about my neighbourhood when I lived on an island up north. It pretty much went wherever it liked and would often give you a start when you saw it up a tree out of the corner of your eye, or when it let fly with it's fairly horrible cry right outside the kitchen window. One day it stopped turning up, and it turned out a local woman had hit it with her car when she was in a rush for the ferry one morning. She wasn't very popular with the neighbours.

We also have a visiting peacock where I'm living now. Most of the peacock photos in this article are of this bird. We'd seen him around the village but it must have taken him a while to figure out we're here all day and he drops by most days. He belongs to a farm at the bottom of the hill. He's quite tame and will take bread from your hand. Watching him eat grapes is entertaining, to say the least.

The peafowl we're mainly familiar with is the Indian Peafowl, native to the Indian subcontinent. There is another similar peafowl in the same family, the Green Peafowl, which is native to South-east Asia. The two diverged about 70,000 years ago. There is a white peafowl. These birds are not albino, but rather colour variants.

They've been domesticated for a long, long time. They're mentioned in the Bible and ancient Greek plays. The Romans first took them to Britain. Our English name for them comes from the Latin name "pavo", which became péa in Old English, and the later addition of -cock and -hen for the male and female respectively. Humorous previous spellings include "pyckock", "pokokke" and "poocok". The current spelling was settled on in the late 1600s.

Peafowl are forest birds (that's right, their natural habitat isn't parks!) They nest on the ground and roost in trees. It was a bit surprising to find out they're forest birds, but after seeing our visitor thread his way through the bush I can certainly believe it. They have quite a stately and deliberate walk and are very quiet. When you're sitting outside the bird can get right up close without you noticing. They have strong looking legs and can easily jump 3' or so from standing.

Peafowl are omnivirous. As well as plants they eat creatures from small insects up to mice and lizards. In an interesting twist of fate they also catch small fish.

Many of the colours we see in peacock feathers are not caused by pigment but by optical interference patterns caused by the microscopic structure of the coating on the barbules of the feathers. These structures cause different colours depending on the angle light hits them, which is why the colours change as we move the feathers around.

The feathers we think of as the peacock's "tail" are not actually tail feathers, but rather tail covert feathers. They cover the actual tail feathers, which are much smaller, although still quite large. They're quite a dull smokey grey colour. My guess is they help to support the tail covert feathers when the peacock has his "fan" raised. Beneath the tail is a big puff of white marabou-like feathers.

As you might imagine the more splendid a peacock's tail display is the more action he gets, and the "eyes" are an important part of that. Experiments have been done to prove this. The studliest male on a farm had a number of the eyes removed from his tail and he then became far less popular with the ladies.

One thing you may not have come across before is the sounds peacocks can make with their feathers. When the tail is up they often hang their wing feathers down and make a loud rustling flapping noise with them. The best noise is from the tail feathers themselves though. The peacock can vibrate them quickly against each other producing a kind of "fffrrrrr, fffrrrrr" noise. It's hard to describe but very cool. While this is happening the whole tail is shimmering, to great effect.

The peacock feather mainly used is of course the herl, or barb, from the tail feathers. It's often used for bodies but is also commonly used for toppings or overwings on all sorts of flies, from trout to salmon to salt. It makes a great "fish back" colour for baitfish imitations.

I used to dislike tying with herl because it can be fragile. If you don't already know it, a handy technique is to tie it in and then wind it around the tying thread until it becomes a bit like chenille. This really helps make it easier to wind on without breaking and as a bonus makes for a more robust body. It also helps to pinch off the tips and tie it in by the butt. As with all sorts of herl, it's a lot easier to wind on without breaking if you have a rotary vise.

The herl is apparently great for quill type bodies when stripped, as it gives a nice contrasting segmented effect. I say "apparently" because I have yet to strip a piece of herl which looks any good when wound. I've tried herl from all different parts of the feather but I'm obviously jinxed. My favourite peacock quill body fly is the Kakahi Queen, a NZ mayfly dry pattern.

Another feather often used is the sword feathers. These feathers form a dense fringe along the bottom edge of the tail when it's up like a fan. It has a much thicker and denser appearance than the usual tail herl. Most of the barbs are on the underside of the quill and as they get shorter toward the tip it looks a lot like a sword or scimitar. Sword lends itself to wings, topping and tails. One of my favourite uses of sword is as upwings on the Love's Lure pattern (see below). I've seen some buzzers tied with wound sword bodies using the long barbs which have a very short fine fuzz on them.

Sword feathers making a fringe along the bottom of the "fan"

Less commonly used are the body feathers. Feathers from the neck are predominantly blue, while those from the top of the body are green and gold. The shape of the stems makes them tricky to tie in flat. It's much thicker at right angles to the barbs, so they tend to twist over when you tighten up. Flattening with pliers first helps.

One of the most interesting feathers is the mottled secondary wing quills. These look a bit like turkey tail but are more black and light tan/white. I would guess these are one of the least used peacock feathers, but as with many interesting feathers they are used in salmon flies. Clark Reid has a nice picture of a feather in the step-by-step for his very buggy looking stonefly nymph on the Board. The primary wing quills are a rusty brown colour which would make nice wings for dries or wets.

Mottled secondary wing feathers
Rusty primaries

Just for laughs I've tied up a few flies I think make interesting use of peacock feathers, which you can see below. Click the images to see larger versions. On the top left is an Alexandra, which uses sword herl for the wing. This is an old fly, named after Princess Alexandra. It has the distinction of being a fly banned on some waters for being too effective, back in the 1800s. It seems the old "too effective" thing has been an issue in the UK for a while.

The next fly is a Love's Lure. As far as I can discover it's a NZ fly. It's quite a versatile pattern which could be taken as a blowfly, beetle or even a snail. It uses sword herl for the wings and tail, and tail herl for body. This one is a commercial tie.

On the bottom left is a very nice spider pattern I came across in a UK magazine. It uses a neck feather for the hackle, tail herl for the thorax and a blue tinsel body.

Finally there's a Killer style fly, another NZ fly style, tied in the fashion of a Mrs Simpson or Hamill's Killer using neck feathers. I thought I was quite imaginative when creating this, but it turns out I was far from the first to think of it, of course.

Love's Lure
Love's Lure


Peacock Killer

Various bits of information in the above were stolen from Wikipedia and Take Our Word For It.

Jo Meder ( lives in New Zealand's South Island on the side of a mountain. Since rediscovering fly fishing a few years ago he's become a hopeless addict and can often be found roaming the banks of both rivers and lakes, supporting his habit through work as a software developer. One day he will catch a fish from his kayak. He likes to cast just because and seeks to pass on the enjoyment of casting in his capacity as an FFF Certified Casting Instructor.


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