Are Wild Peacocks Deaf?

Among the “birds that haunt the woods and fields” in Comnesius’s Orbis pictus is Number 8, “the deaf wild peacock.”

Charles Hoole‘s otherwise perfectly serviceable translation of his Latin source stumbles slightly here: “Tetrao” is the name not of the peacock but of the capercaillie, a bird I suppose we can forgive the English schoolmaster for not knowing.

Hoole got the adjective right, though.

Orbis pictus Tetrao

“Surdus” does indeed mean “deaf” — but what could that possibly have to do with the bird?

Here and elsewhere in the Orbis pictus, Comenius inserts a single word as a placeholder for an entire rich tradition of natural historical lore.

Pl enl 73 Martinet capercaillie

Though it took centuries to confirm what some suspected was just an ancient folktale, we know today that cock capercaillies, it turns out, are in fact deaf, at least sometimes. But the argument was hard fought.

In 1753, a “skilled hunter” reported that the displaying capercaillie

during the entire time he is calling is deaf, and notices nothing, no matter how much noise one makes, not even when one shoots at him….

Seventeen years later, the comte de Buffon repeated as credible much of what that hunter had written. But he corrected his informant in the matter of the bird’s deafness.

Some have even written that the capercaillie is deaf and blind at such times [of mating displays].  But he is hardly any more so than are almost all the other animals, including man, in similar circumstances. All experience more or less the same ecstasy of love, but it is apparently stronger in the capercaillie…. Obviously, the mating season is when one hunts the bird or sets traps for it.

J.L. Frisch Auerhahn 1733-1763

In the middle of the eighteenth century, J.L. Frisch noted that the bird’s obliviousness when the spirit of amor fell upon him was downright proverbial: When the cock is displaying, he lets hunters walk right up to him,

and that is the origin of the saying, when someone is lovesick and wanders around as if in a dream, “He is like a capercaillie in the mating season.”

Frisch had nothing to say about the bird’s auditory capacities, but he did report another tale, which he dismissed as “risible.” They say that the capercaillie

spits his sperm out of his bill, thus attracting the females to him. They gather it up and eat it, and in this way fertilize their eggs. If it lies on the ground and goes bad, however, snakes and other vermin are produced by it.

Comenius’s telegraphic annotations of his birds are meant to draw the reader deeper, to raise the questions that would take him (the pupils were boys, recall) into centuries worth of natural historical lore.

Worked for us, worked for them.