The Trojan Peacock

February 3, 2008

News Flash:

Check out the Science News article (June 7) in which Roz explains some of her research.

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/32451/title/How_they_shine

UPDATE: Check the photo of Penelope in action at

http://strangebirds.wordpress.com/2008/03/15/penelope-rolls-out/

penelope-small.jpg

One of the simple joys of life is to watch the things the younger generation can get up to. My son and his friend Roslyn brought the device in the photo to the farm this weekend for a few modifications before Roz packs it into her suitcase and takes it to Los Angeles with her. Roz is a graduate student in ornithology at Queen’s, and her field of study is the mating habits of peafowl, specifically the males’ use of iridescence in their feathers to attract the female eye. The Los Angeles Arboretum has the largest collection of free-range peafowl on the continent, so it became a good location for a month of field studies. The problem, as Roz explained it, is that mating season is still several months away. How could she observe male display behaviour when the females aren’t in the mood?

Turns out a fellow grad student is an accomplished taxidermist, and he offered to make up a stuffed peahen for Roz if she could find one. A weekend in New York ended with the purchase of a frozen bird from a farm in Ithaca.

Roz’s research has to do with how peacocks control the iridescence of their feathers, primarily by turning to catch the light from the sun. For the decoy to work to maximum advantage, they’d have to move it around a bit in the presence of the males to enable their best displays.

That’s when the remote control truck came in. Charlie looked back to his boyhood days and turned a Radio Shack RC truck chassis into a parade float for the stuffed bird. The main engineering problem had to do with finding a fastening system for the parts which could be taken on an airliner (no wrenches or screwdrivers) and assembled easily on demand at customs and in the field. In the end he hit upon a roll of duct tape. You can’t beat the stuff sometimes.

Roz had her first lessons at RC peahen-driving in our kitchen. A series of empty paint cans became pylons, and the poor bird held grimly to the platform as she zoomed around.

The creature needed a name, but earlier this week both Charlie and Roz had expressed their disapproval of my calling the local red-tailed hawk by a dumb name like Zeke. Apparently to someone of their generation Zeke has connotations “of a creepy shotgun-loving redneck from the deep South.” Gee, I just thought it sounded like his call, but what do I know? Understandably I was hesitant to offer a name for the new toy, but I made an earnest request for one to personalize the thing for this article.

Then on the way home I thought of that Ryan Gosling movie with the mannequin. Wikipedia had its/her name: Bianca. Perfect. I caught them in the car on the way back to Kingston, but Charlie blurted out before I could speak: “Penelope! Her name is Penelope. Roz and Rob had a phone conference on it, and that’s her name.”

Somewhat taken aback, I tried anyway. “Did you consider Bianca?”

A blank-sounding “no.” He obviously hasn’t seen the movie or read about it.

“Could you at least mention the name to Roz?”

“O.K.” Hoots of laughter from the car. A long pause, more hoots, and then, “It’s still Penelope.”

Scratching my head about how Zeke is too “old” a name for their generation, but Penelope isn’t, I signed off. Then I started to think: in Homer’s The Odyssey Penelope was a magnet for every available man for many years while her husband Odysseus was away sacking Troy. She managed to maintain her dignity and integrity throughout, but there was no doubting that males found her attractive. And their home island/farm was, of course, Ithaca. What’s more, Odysseus was best known for his clever invention, a statue of a horse mounted on wheels, designed to deceive the Trojans into letting down their guard.

If the rest of the research is as clever as the decoy’s name, Roz and her crew should have an interesting month in LA.

The things kids get up to these days.

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3 Responses to “The Trojan Peacock”

  1. helen dakin Says:

    The author is Homer, and the island is Ithaca. This island is just a stone’s throw away from my father’s birthplace (Kephalonia), two beautiful islands that might have been at one time connected. They are on an earthquake fault line on the western side of Greece. Someday I would like to go to Ithaca.

    Cheers,
    HD

  2. rodcros Says:

    Helen:

    Blush. I can’t think of how Virgil got in there, though I was kidding about the farm. Odysseus spent so much time yearning after IthAca that it had to be more than a mere island to him.

    Thanks for the note,

    Rod

  3. helen dakin Says:

    easy to make the mistake but a GREEK would know that Virgil was Roman and he wrote epics like Homer (who was Greek). What you say about yearning for Ithaca is true.
    I have the yearning too but I like life in Canada (even with all the snow). Both Ithaca and Kephalonia are more than mere islands.


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