The shimmering hues of a peacock's feather have been a source of aesthetic and scientific admiration for thousands of years. Unlike most birds, peacocks do not derive their colours purely from pigments, but from a combination of pigments and photonic crystals, which reflect different wavelengths of light depending upon the angle of the light and the spacing of the crystals. This is what causes the iridescent shades of blue, green, brown and yellow commonly found in a peacock's train.
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The head and neck of the Indian, or blue, peacock is a rich, iridescent blue. This colouring is what distinguishes it from the green peacock, which has a green and copper colouring. Both species also possess an eye spot on their tail plumes with this same rich blue. This colour is created by a crystalline lattice of nine to 12 rods containing melanin, a colour pigment. These rods are spaced roughly 140 nanometres apart, which results in light being reflected back at wavelengths that fall in the blue spectrum.
Green is the dominant colour on the head and neck of the three green peacock subspecies: the Java green, the Indochinese green and the Burmese green. It also graces the tail plumes of both the blue and the green species. This colour is created by a square lattice of roughly 10 rods spaced 150 nanometres apart. When light hits this structure, the wavelengths that are reflected back are in the green portion of the spectrum.
Varying shades of brown and copper are found on the bodies and tails of both of the peafowl species. There are also mutations of these species which are almost completely brown. The Buford bronze, for instance, has a tail which is chocolate brown with dark brown eye spots. These mutations are rare and are formed by selectively breeding peafowls so that their plumes contain mostly rectangular lattices of approximately four rods spaced from 150 to 185 nanometres apart.
A close examination of a peacock plume reveals a quill with many featherlike strands branching off of it. Each one of these strands is in turn made up of featherlike filaments called barbules. Although the colour yellow is not always readily apparent on the peacock, it can appear on all or part an individual barbule and contributes to the overall colour of the bird. It is formed by a crystal lattice composed of around six rods, each 165 nanometres apart.
Other colours, such as purple, are created by varying pigments and lattice patterns. The partial absence of pigments, a condition known as leucism, is responsible for peacocks that are partially or completely white. These peacocks are not distinct species, however, but rather mutations of the blue or green peacock.
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- Encyclopedia Britannica: Peacock
- "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America" (PNAS); Coloration Strategies in Peacock Feathers; Jian Zi, et al.; 2003
- Georgia State Univesity's HyperPhysics: Peacock Feather Colors
- Amy's Peacock Paradise: Buford Bronze
- American Collectibles Guide: Peacock Feathers