Why Peacocks? An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird.
Sean Flynn. 2021. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster.
There is always the potential when dabbling with birds—and this no one tells you beforehand—of becoming enchanted, and it is impossible to understand this until it happens. (p. 217)
What was the last bird you can honestly say you were “enchanted” by? Not just wowed briefly by its colorful plumage or awed by some crazy behavior or thrilled by how rare it was? There have certainly been birds I have momentarily been knocked out by, like the cassowary in Queensland that cornered us and started booming. In that case I am not sure I was not just exceedingly thrilled that we were not disemboweled. After some thought, my “closest to enchanted” moment was watching the Fairy Terns nest on Lord Howe Island. The shocking pure white of the adults was surreal looking. It seemed whiter than anything I had seen in birds before. This white contrasted with a solid dark eye and bill, giving the tern an unreal appearance. They lay their single egg on bare branches, with not even the idea of a constructed nest. When the young hatch, they cling to that branch for dear life. Every time we passed a nesting bird over the course of a week, I had to watch it. That may be as close as I have gotten to being enchanted by a bird.
One of the threads that runs through Why Peacocks? is how Sean Flynn, admittedly “agnostic” about all birds at the start of the book, bit by bit falls under the spell of his peacocks. Why Peacocks? is also a story about how human families learn to understand and appreciate the non-human members of their family, particularly when those “pets” die.
Sean Flynn met his wife Louise on the north shore of Massachusetts. He is a reporter, writer, and journalist. Louise is also a writer. They marry, have two children, Emmett and Calvin, and eventually move to a small farm in North Carolina. Emmett wants a snake as a pet, and Sean buys him a small python dubbed Cosmo. Sean is also agnostic about snakes: does not fear them, does not love them. Through an unfortunate accident, the snake dies, and Emmett is heartbroken. They get two chickens, but that is not enough for Emmett. Finally, through a strange series of events, they decide to get some peacocks. That leap from owning two chickens to raising three peacocks seems a bit impulsive. Louise, not sure what they are getting into, wants to start with only one.
Louise has spontaneously volunteered to take a peacock because a peacock, in a fundamental sense, is not a bird that one possesses so much as experiences; as with an especially moving work of art, the simple act of looking at it will stir emotion. (p. 30)
But Sean wants more. Sean writes, “The reason to have a peacock, I would have thought, is self evident.” (p. 3) Really? Flynn offers, “Because Keats was right about truth and beauty.” (p. 3) This refers to the final lines of John Keats’s 1819 poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
My thought was that this was an awful lot to expect from three domesticated peafowl, Keats, and art, I do not care how beautiful their train. I was wrong.
And with that, Sean and the book take a wild ride down the rabbit hole.
Sean Flynn knows he is going to have to build an enclosure of some kind to house his Keatsian wonders, so he turns to Martha Stewart’s blog. It seems that Ms. Stewart has quite a number of peafowl and has instructions on her blog for building the perfect enclosure. “Martha Stewart’s pen would be the best pen because Martha taught me how to make Bŭche de Noël. And I’m much better with a hammer than a jelly roll pan.” (p. 34)
I admit to having a passing vision of Martha and her friend Snoop Dog in lounge chairs, smoking a big one and just digging Martha’s peafowl.
Before we go any further, some peafowl basics. The collective term is peafowl, the male is a peacock, and the female a peahen. And it is not the peacock’s tail, it is the train. The actual tail is quite ordinary and under the train.
After the peafowl coop is constructed, the next problem is where to buy peafowl. This is not as simple as you may think, but eventually Sean finds a woman, simply referred to as Danielle. She has been living on a rural farm since 1977 with many horses and many peafowl. She wants to sell the peafowl because, according to her, a resident Great Horned Owl is preying on them, biting off all of their heads. If that does not sound quite right, it is not. All I will write is that there is more to that story in the book. Sean buys three peafowl—two peacocks and a peahen. On first laying eyes on the birds, Sean is smitten, “It was the most magnificent creature I had ever seen.” (p. 23)
They bag them unceremoniously headfirst in old feed bags with their feet hanging out, and Sean transports his treasures home. They are named by the family Ethel, Carl, and Mr. Pickle. At this point in the story, Why Peacocks? follows two main threads. One thread is Sean’s challenges keeping such large, and frankly odd birds and his growing fascination with them. The peafowl get seriously sick several times, and this entails transporting them to the nearest avian veterinarian, Dr. Burkett, who becomes a major character in this tale. It proves to be extremely expensive to treat such exotic domestic fowl. This brings up the dreaded situation of measuring how much to spend on healing a pet your family loves before it becomes too much money.
Of course, Sean is waiting anxiously for one of his peacocks to display its legendary train. When it finally happens, his writing captures the psychedelic majesty of the event:
Mr. Pickle turned toward me, his beak half open, as if he were mouth-breathing. His train was spread in a half-circle nine feet across, as high as my chin, and curling gently forward at the top. Except his feathers were no longer individual appendages. They were part of a woven whole, an elaborate tapestry of gold and blue and turquoise. His breast and neck were a tapered sapphire wedge against the green-gold scales between his shoulders, which formed a smaller, denser half-circle, like a nova core exploding. Mr. Pickle shuffled his feet, twisted a few degrees to the east, and the turquoise returned. The top of his arc began to deflate ever so slightly, and then he rattled his feathers and the arc was full again. The entire train was alive, rippling like water, yet the eye at the end of each feather appeared to be floating on the surface, barely disturbed. (p. 51)
Sean Flynn is just as elegant in describing the vocal displays of peacocks, something he was apprehensive about because of how loud and raucous it was supposed to be, and he has neighbors who might be annoyed.
Mr. Pickle, a rising two-note burst, E above middle C, up to G, a quick slur down to F-sharp. He repeated it twice, which I could hear from inside the house. It was not a plaintive cry, desperate and whiny, but assertive, a robust announcement: I am here. A moment later, he encored with a triplet of single notes in the same range, mow, mow, mow. (p. 221)
The other thread of Why Peacocks? is Sean’s considerable research into the lore, history, natural history, and scientific study of peafowl. He is a reporter and journalist, and this instinct to uncover all aspects of the peacock’s history serves him well.
There are three species of peafowl in the wild: the India Blue, the Green, and the Congo. The first two are found in Southeast Asia and India; the last species is found in Africa. The Green and Congo species are declining and are listed as vulnerable or endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is due to deforestation and the massive conversion of forest to agricultural land. They are also threatened with Chinese hydroelectric schemes. Only the India Blue is not threatened and has become a widespread domesticated fowl.
Peafowl were well known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and from there, they spread over Europe. But they did not become established in North America until the late 1800s.
Sean becomes interested in the evolution of the peafowl. The evolution of such a spectacular train bothered Darwin: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail,” Charles Darwin once wrote, “whenever I gaze at it, it makes me sick.” (p. 99) We know more about the evolution of the train, and there have even been studies of what the peahen is looking at when the peacock is in full display:
Mostly she looks at something else entirely. For every four minutes a peacock flaunts his train, a peahen ignores him for almost three. And when she does look, she is much more interested in the lower regions, in the swords and bottom-row eyespots, and, from the back, the wings. Jazz hands and rattling feathers catch her attention, but she’s decidedly disinterested in the grand sprawl of the show. She barely glances at the upper eye-spots, which appear to be more useful as a long-distance lure poking above low bushes and high grass. (p. 109–10)
There are many myths and stories about peacocks. Probably the best known is a Greek myth about how the eyes got on the train feather. It is too long a tale to relate here, but it involves Zeus, Hera, Io, and Argus the hundred-eyed giant. The peacock is also an important bird in the Hindu religion. Flynn does a fine job telling these and other myths and stories. I know this because I have lectured about peacocks in art for decades and had to do the considerable research myself.
For such visually spectacular birds, it is sobering that they were also eaten by the rich and powerful. Some of the historical-gastronomical information in Why Peacocks? borders on the grotesque:
Henry III, for example, had 120 of them served at his Christmas feast in 1251, and the Archbishop of York had 104 prepared for a feast in the fifteenth century. Yet the peacock’s beauty was always the point, even when it was being eaten. A regally prepared peacock would be skinned and dressed, roasted, and then covered again with its own skin for serving, feathers still lovely and gleaming. (p. 123–24)
Did peafowl taste particularly sumptuous? Not at all. This seems an extreme example of conspicuous consumption. The rich devouring extreme beauty simply because they could afford it.
Sean Flynn also travels to see collections of peafowl, to places like the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City where peafowl have been in residence since the 1980s. In Scotland’s Dumferline estate there is even a peacock warden. These travels pale in comparison to Flynn’s trip to the Palos Verdes Peninsula in California. Here there was a large population of feral peafowl well known to many. How they got here is, in part, courtesy of Frank A. Vanderlip, Sr., a banker from New York who helped design the Federal Reserve. But these birds, loved and appreciated by many of the residents for many decades, have recently become the victims of an unknown serial killer. Since 2012, more than 60 birds have been shot with buckshot, shot with bolts from a crossbow, and otherwise tortured. There is even a police captain with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles assigned to the case. So far, there are no good suspects. Why would people want to destroy such obviously beautiful birds? It is because under all those shimmering feathers, peafowl are just birds:
Gini figured it out. “People think they’re cute,” she told me. People drive into the Lanes and it is fairy-tale land. They see in those birds what I saw, elegant hallucinations on a fence rail, cobalt sylphs rising from the dust. They offer, just by standing there, a swirl of wonder, a glimpse of fantasy.
And then they go and act like birds, whooping and pooping and trashing the garden. To a certain kind of person, it feels like a bait and switch, as if they’ve been betrayed. It’s the stuff of pulp fiction and tabloid crime, beauty and betrayal, and it always ends badly. (p.153)
Why Peacocks? ends, like it began, with the sad passing of a pet, their cat Okra this time, and how they break the news to their sons about their pet’s illness and eventual passing. But the final word, which I will not spoil in this review, is about the peafowl.
Why Peacocks? is a unique bird book. A bird book written by a person who is not a birder or an ornithologist. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of Why Peacocks?, Sean Flynn seems not to care one way or another about birds. But by spending time with the peafowl, getting to know them as individuals, and letting his reporter’s instincts lead him to ferret out all the considerable lore about his birds, he does become truly enchanted.
To listen to Mark Lynch’s conversation with Sean Flynn, go the WICN podcast website: <https://www.wicn.org/podcast/sean-flynn/>