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Why Peacocks?

An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World's Most Magnificent Bird

An acclaimed journalist seeks to understand the mysterious allure of peacocks—and in the process discovers unexpected and valuable life lessons.

2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence Longlist Selection

When Sean Flynn’s neighbor in North Carolina texted “Any chance you guys want a peacock? No kidding!” he stared bewilderedly at his phone. He had never considered whether he wanted a peacock. But as an award-winning magazine writer, this kind of mystery intrigued him. So he, his wife, and their two young sons became the owners of not one but three charming yet fickle birds: Carl, Ethel, and Mr. Pickle.

In Why Peacocks?, Flynn chronicles his hilarious and heartwarming first year as a peacock owner, from struggling to build a pen to assisting the local bird doctor in surgery to triumphantly watching a peahen lay her first egg. He also examines the history of peacocks, from their appearance in the Garden of Eden to their befuddling Charles Darwin to their bewitching the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Martha Stewart. And fueled by a reporter’s curiosity, he travels across the globe to learn more about the birds firsthand, with stops including a Scottish castle where peacocks have resided for centuries, a southern California community tormented by a serial killer of peacocks, and a Kansas City airport hotel hosting an annual gathering of true peafowl aficionados.

At turns comically absurd and deeply poignant, Why Peacocks? blends lively, insightful memoir and illuminating science journalism to answer the title’s question. More than that, it offers surprising lessons about love, grief, fatherhood, and family.

Chapter One Chapter One
The reason to have a peacock, I would have thought, is self-evident.

When you suddenly, and without any relevant experience or hint of prior interest, come into possession of one, it is understandable that people would be curious as to why. Yet they present the question in a way that suggests they genuinely cannot see what should be plainly obvious. I’m sure it was from exasperation that George Mallory finally said he was climbing Mount Everest simply because it was there.

So: because of feathers. That is the reason. And colors.

Because a peacock is a wondrously improbable apparition, ethereal, an avian experiment strayed from a misty place where pretty things are whispered about before being made fully real. Because looking at one makes you happy. Because Keats was right about truth and beauty.

Also because, in this particular instance, anyway: Elvis, too. And because the first gifts you give the woman you’ve already decided you want to marry are freighted with enormously high stakes, some, even, that you can’t possibly recognize until many years have passed and then one afternoon there are peacocks in the yard.

We were both writers, she in New York and I in Boston, and we met in the usual way people did before smartphones and swiping apps, which was through friends. When we still lived in different cities, I would pick up Louise at the Back Bay train station and take her to my house in Swampscott, a hamlet on the edge of the ocean north of Boston. The drive between the station and the house was a dreary slog past the airport and the greyhound track and sketchy secondhand-car lots on roads clotted with traffic and squeezed by crooked buildings smeared with soot. “I’m wooing you,” I told her on the first visit, which was true. “This is the scenic route.”

I narrated the highlights as best as I understood them, which was mostly from writing about murder and thieving and the hoodlum idiocy of the decaying Boston mob. “I knew a guy who used to fix races,” I said when we passed the dog track. “He said in a pinch you can just kick ’em in the nuts.” I pointed into one of the denser neighborhoods beyond the guardrail. “My first story for the Herald was over there,” I said. “Convenience-store stickup. Guy got pistol-whipped.”

She was charmed by those anecdotes, I told myself, by those dark tales so casually revealed. There is an element of mythmaking in the early days of dating: You craft the best imagined version of yourself, she crafts hers, and if you’re lucky, you believe each other long enough for those two stories to twine together and begin to unspool a new one. That, at the time, was my best version: seasoned crime writer.

Louise, for her part, liked to say that she was never more Southern than when she lived in her Brooklyn walk-up. She fried chicken for me in the eight-piece electric skillet her mother mailed from Tennessee, and she gathered fresh collards from the bodega on the corner to stew in salt pork. She slipped spears of pickled okra into glasses of gin poured from the bottle in the freezer. We would sit with our stiff martinis near the window to watch the curious foot traffic circulating through the brownstone across the street. “That’s a brothel, isn’t it?” she whispered one night—not in judgment, I was certain, but to hint that she, too, was aware of things in the shadows.

Halfway between the train station and my house, traffic often stalled us in front of a storefront the color of penicillin mold called the Green Spot that, from the outside, appeared to sell only three things: lobsters, spider plants, and plaster busts of Elvis. “Mob shop,” I told her. “That’s gotta be a front.”

She smiled every time we passed it after that. “Mahbstas and lahbstas,” she’d purr. “Lahbstas and mahbstas.”

I bought her one of those Elvis busts for our first Valentine’s Day. A gift under such circumstances has to be precisely calibrated, as it reveals both your intentions and how closely you’ve been paying attention. A plaster Elvis was playful enough, but it was also hollow, literally and figuratively, and with a coin slot cut through the top. It hardly suggested my depth of feeling. I needed ballast.

She had told me, late one night when the okra spears were almost gone, about the book that made her want to become a writer, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I wasn’t very familiar with O’Connor, but I knew that the title story involved an escaped convict and multiple homicides, which I took as one of those small illuminating details that suggested Louise and I were well suited for each other.

I tracked down a first edition and had it wrapped and ribboned and leaning against Elvis’s cheek when she arrived at my house. I baked a chocolate cake, deflated and with frosting like spackle, and set that next to Elvis, too. I thought it important she knew at the beginning that I wasn’t afraid to fail.

Almost twenty years later, Elvis is in her office, the chips in his hairline touched up with Sharpie. The book is on a shelf in our bedroom. When I notice it every now and again, I remember Louise in a soft blue sweater and the light of a fire, one knee drawn up to her chin and talking with her hands the way she does when she’s especially enthused. She’s telling me for the first time about the Georgia farm where O’Connor famously raised peacocks. “In Milledgeville, same town as the state penitentiary,” she’s saying, because by then all of our best stories led to crime. “It’s where they used to keep the electric chair.”

That was a nice detail, the chair. I’d forgotten about the peacocks, though. We never know which parts are going to be important.

Still, that’s another way to answer the question.

A more immediate explanation is to say that we already had the chickens and that we got the chickens because the snake died. He was a ball python, a docile species native to sub-Saharan Africa and big-box pet stores, and the only thing Emmett wanted for Christmas that year and, frankly, for every gifting occasion since kindergarten. He’d start lobbying a few weeks before his birthday, resume after he’d finished his Halloween stash, pick up before Valentine’s and again near Easter. The calendar provides a surprising number of days on which to give a boy a snake.

The odds were always against him. Louise is afraid of snakes, as well as other toothy, wormlike creatures, such as lampreys and eels. But Emmett was in third grade that year, probably old enough to keep a pet confined to a tank, and he had greatly improved his pitch. He stressed the word ball and curled his hands into a small lump so his mother wouldn’t confuse it with one of those Burmese monsters that might eat the cat. “And ball pythons are really gentle, Mom,” he said. “They’re not dangerous like all the copperheads in the yard.”

That was true. There are copperheads in the yard. We’d moved to North Carolina thirteen years earlier, when Louise was pregnant with Calvin, Emmett’s older brother, and we now live in a slate-roofed farmhouse on a misshapen acre shaded by pecans and sugar maples. There’s an old smokehouse a few steps from the kitchen door, an aging barn across a graveled drive, and, around back, an abandoned greenhouse that’s been converted into my office. The neighborhood is not remotely rural—the crop fields that surrounded the house long ago were subdivided into tracts of single-family housing, and we could walk to the nearest Target if we put some effort into it—but from a certain angle, the property can appear to be a farm still. It helps the illusion that there is a paddock in front of the barn, in which the neighbors keep a pair of Nigora goats and a miniature horse they brought home in a minivan. His name is Chief.

The decision to trade a cottage on the north shore of Boston for a Potemkin farm in North Carolina was impulsive, which typically we are not. Louise and I are both magazine writers, a job that requires only a laptop and access to an airport, and we’d been musing about moving somewhere warmer and brighter before we had children. As it happened, her father was treated for cancer in Durham, and Louise flew down every few weeks to keep him company. In between chemo and cranial radiation, the two would amuse themselves by scouting old houses. No one was home when they stumbled upon this place, so Louise’s father told her to stand lookout while he peeked in all the windows. She was rightfully hesitant, but the old country lawyer in him was convincing. “No one will mind me,” he said. “I’m a bald old judge with cancer, harmless as they come.” He poked around long enough for Louise to get nervous. Then he got back in the car and sat there for a moment, not saying anything, just looking at the barn and the sweep of the porch. “This is it,” he declared. “The one.”

In fairness, we’d only ever seen two copperheads. But Emmett made a persuasive point: If we were already surrounded by venomous serpents, what was the harm in caging a small, timid python in his room?

“Can you promise me a snake won’t get out?” Louise asked about a week before Christmas.

“Nope,” I said.

She frowned at me.

“I mean, I’d hope it wouldn’t get out. The cat would kill the poor thing.”

She frowned harder.

“We don’t have to get him a snake,” I said. “We never have before. We can steer him toward something else.”

She let out a long sigh. We both understood perfectly well that a snake was inevitable. “Fine, let’s get him the snake.” Her shoulders twitched, a reflexive shudder. “Christmas always makes me do things I’ll regret.” That wasn’t true, I knew, but the Flingshot Flying Monkeys of two Christmases past had been somewhat traumatic.

I bought a snake the next day from a chain pet store, along with a tank and all the recommended accessories. Cosmo—Emmett was certain of the name—was supposed to be from Santa Claus, so I set up his tank in my office. I put aspen shavings on the bottom, set a water dish in one corner and a ceramic cave in another, and, between those, balanced a piece of driftwood upon which Cosmo could bask. Plastic gauges stuck to the wall measured the temperature and humidity, and a timer switched between two heat lamps, white for day and red for night.

Unlike Louise and Emmett, I had always been agnostic about snakes. I found them to be neither scary nor particularly interesting, and Cosmo did nothing to nudge my opinion. He was a basic and unpretentious brown mottled with spots the color of toasted oats, and a thin strip of scales along his spine caught the light from his day lamp; if he’d moved, he might have twinkled. But he did not move. Except for his tongue swabbing the air, he remained motionless. In the wild, he could have been mistaken for a tidy pile of dirt.

When I went back to my office that evening, though, the light from his heat lamp threw a fingerling shadow toward the door. Cosmo was stretched out and mostly vertical, balancing on his back third and nosing along the top edge of the tank. He slowly lowered himself, moved to a corner, rose again. He was bigger than I’d thought when he’d been curled up, more than a foot long. He checked the entire perimeter, crawled over his cave, across the driftwood, down to his water dish, then back around to the top of the cave.

We stared at each other for a few minutes, or seemed to, anyway. For all I know, Cosmo was looking at his own reflection or a smudge on the glass. But a boy in the third grade could easily imagine Cosmo was focused intently upon him, communicating, even, like that boa constrictor Harry Potter busted out of the zoo. The thrill was immediate, bubbly, because that right there was the privilege of Christmas parenting: the ability, or maybe the hubris, to appropriate the bonkers joy your child will feel when he wakes up to what he wished for. The feeling is a sort of arrogant relief, both that you’ve accomplished something special and, at the same time, not miserably failed on the most important day in a kid’s year.

On Christmas Eve, after we read The Night Before Christmas from a fragile spiral-bound pop-up book that my mother read to me and her father read to her, the boys always read aloud their notes to Santa Claus, inquiring as to his well-being and requesting no more than three gifts. Then they toss them into the fireplace, having been convinced that magic smoke is the fastest conveyance to the North Pole.

Calvin went first. He is two years older than Emmett and had long ago figured out the impossibility of an obese man delivering gifts to the entire world in a single night; our neighborhood alone, he’d calculated, would take the better part of an hour. But he was sentimental enough to want to believe and kind enough to indulge his parents and, for several Christmases prior, not whisper anything about it to his brother. He asked only for a fish tank and a scooter, both of which were already in my office, fully assembled and wrapped.

Emmett stood before the fire next, holding his note with both hands. “?‘Dear Santa,’?” he began. “?‘For Christmas I would like a real, living ball python.’?” He put an italic emphasis on the word living, as if Santa might get confused and bring him a stuffed toy or forget to feed an animal in the bustling months before the big night.

Louise shared a subtle, satisfied smile. We had achieved peak Santa. No left-field gift requests, no forgotten batteries, no tiny pieces to lose. We would be in bed by eleven.

I went back to my office after both boys were asleep and it was time to put presents under the tree. Cosmo’s tank was glowing on the floor, but something was off, out of place. I had a twitch of panic.

It took a second to adjust: The thermometer was missing.

No, not missing. Misplaced. It was on the floor of the tank instead of the wall, faceup in the shavings directly under the lamp, its needle pointed at a proper basking temperature of 91 degrees.

I slid open the top, reached for the thermometer. There was a riffle in the bedding, something pale and ropy shaking off the wood chips. I finger-swept the shavings away from the thermometer’s dial and found Cosmo’s head beneath it, lolled back but eyes open and tongue flicking. The thermometer was stuck to his throat.

I tried to separate the two, the round thermometer and the snake, but immediately stopped: The adhesive didn’t give a hint of releasing. My panic gestated quickly. Christmas is when parents atone for the accumulated disappointments of the year, make up for the excess travel, the cranky deadline sprints. Santa was supposed to deliver a snake in seven hours, dammit. This was not the time for a soul-crushing complication.

I sprinted up to the house and found Louise in the bedroom, sorting candy for their stockings. “There’s a problem,” I said as quietly as I could. Calvin’s bedroom is directly above ours. “Shit. I think it’s a big problem. Shit, shit, shit.”

“What, what, what?” She hopped up. “Please tell me something awful didn’t just happen.”

I mouthed the word snake, grabbed her hand, and started pulling her out of the room.

Down at my office, she gawped at Cosmo on his back with a big round thermometer on his throat. It was a very confusing scene. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything. Stupid snake must’ve pulled it down on himself.”

“He can’t be dead.”

“He’s not dead,” I said. “But we gotta get that thing off of him.”

We had a bottle of reptile spray—a concoction of aloe and emollients that I thought might loosen the adhesive—and a butter knife that could function as a dull scalpel and pry bar. But this was a two-person job.

“Oh God, do I have to touch him?” Louise scrunched up her face.

“You have to hold him, and I have to spray him.”

She looked at the snake, looked at me. We had deeply serious expressions. Christmas depended on our skill with a kitchen utensil and a spray bottle.

“Okay,” she said. “I can do that. Wait, do I have to do that? Seriously? No, right, it’s fine. I can hold a snake. Of course, yes, I can do that.”

She took a calming breath and reached in. Cosmo didn’t have a lot of fight, so Louise just had to prop him up. I sprayed the joint between the snake and the adhesive until it was soaked, peeled the thermometer back a millimeter or two, doused everything again, waited for more of the sticky to melt. Louise had Cosmo almost completely upright at this point, and he seemed to be glaring at me over the big round dial.

“Does this hurt him?” she asked. “Oh, jeez. We’re probably torturing him.”

She was empathizing, I realized. Bonding, even, with a snake.

It took about twenty minutes, but the last of the adhesive finally let go. The thermometer took a few scales with it, but Cosmo wasn’t bleeding, and when I picked him up for a closer look, he wrapped himself in a lazy coil around my wrist. He wasn’t obviously damaged, though when I set him back in the tank, he slithered directly into his cave and hid.

We unplugged the lamps and the timer, and I carried the tank up to the house, set it on a desk near the Christmas tree. Cosmo was still hiding. “What if he’s dying in there?” Louise said.

Oh, hell. Dead snake is pretty high up on a kid’s list of worst Christmas presents, like savings bonds and socks. We needed a plan. If Cosmo was dead, two days would be enough to find a replacement.

Louise does all the Santa writing, which is totally different from her real handwriting because children are smart. Emmett’s present came with a nice note, written in Santa’s loopy tweenage script:

Dear Emmett,

Because your snake traveled very far to get here, and because this is a new home, he will need some quiet time to feel safe. Do Not handle him until December 27. This will give him time to learn your voice, the sights and sounds of his new home. I know you will take very good care of him—and he will be a good pet. Merry Christmas, Santa.

On Christmas morning, Emmett was elated, as expected. He was mildly disappointed in the embargo on handling Cosmo, but in the short term the illusion was perfect. With the lights and the driftwood and the shavings, it looked like there must be a snake in there. If Emmett contorted himself to get his eyes even with the floor of the tank and cupped his hands like blinkers on a horse, he could see a dark lump that might have been Cosmo’s snout. In the meantime, not having a snake—a real, living ball python—to watch gave him time to study the rest of the habitat. He focused briefly on the thermometer, which I’d prudently reattached at the very bottom of the tank.

“Why does that have the pet store logo on it?”

All the panicky adrenaline had kept Louise and me up; in the dark of our bedroom, we had worked through answers for the various worst-case scenarios, beginning, of course, with why the snake was dead (unpressurized high-altitude travel, obviously). Explaining away a logo was the least complicated. “C’mon, pup,” I said. “Santa doesn’t make snakes. They’re living creatures—he has to get them from the same place everyone else gets them. He probably picks up the thermometer and stuff while he’s there.”

“Santa goes to the pet store?” he asked.

“Of course not,” I said. “He sends an elf.”

Emmett looked skeptical. He squatted next to the tank, his face level with Cosmo’s cave, and blinkered his eyes again. “I think he moved,” he whispered. “Yeah, he definitely moved.” Louise and I left him like that, staring at a shadow, while we went to make Christmas breakfast.

Cosmo was not dead. He mercifully emerged early in the evening, throwing that same fingerling shadow up the wall, nosing along the edge of the tank the same way he’d done the day I’d bought him. The next morning, I carried everything up to Emmett’s bedroom and put it on a shelf where he could see it from his bed. Emmett dutifully changed the water and checked the temperature and humidity. For weeks, Cosmo’s entire behavioral repertoire consisted of hiding in his cave, lazing under a lamp, soaking in his water dish, or crawling from one to the other, a routine occasionally punctuated by unenthusiastically squirming around Emmett’s wrist every three or four days.

The only other thing snakes are supposed to do is eat, which Cosmo refused to do. Knowing nothing of snake anatomy, I suspected that Louise and I had damaged his esophagus, or whatever equivalent it is that snakes have.

We kept a bag of tiny newborn mice in the freezer next to the Popsicles and the peas, and every five days Emmett thawed one under hot water and left it in the tank. Cosmo ignored it. Emmett moved Cosmo and the dead mouse to a dark box, and Cosmo ignored it there, too. Emmett sliced one open and wiggled it in Cosmo’s face so he could pick up the scent of the entrails. Nothing. For two months.

And then he died.

I found him late on a Saturday morning when Louise and Calvin were out of town at a hockey tournament. Depositing some clean laundry in Emmett’s room, I noticed that Cosmo was stretched out in the shavings instead of under his lamp, as was his habit. I gave him a little nudge. He did not move.

I called down from the top of the stairs. “Pup? I think Cosmo is, um… sick.”

He pounded up the stairs. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I’m not sure. You should probably come and look.”

He looked for a very long minute. “He’s just sleeping,” he said. He looked closer. He looked from a different angle.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “But I don’t think so.”

“Can we take him to the doctor?”

I was already Googling. There was a reptile vet thirty minutes away, and it closed in forty. “Yeah, if we hurry, we can get him there.”

We dumped some LEGOs out of a plastic box, stabbed air holes in the top, tossed in a handful of shavings. Emmett reached for the snake. “I’ll get Cosmo,” I said. If he was dead, I could fake it, hold him so he wouldn’t dangle, plainly limp and lifeless.

He was limp and lifeless.

I laid Cosmo in the box and started to put the lid on. “Wait.” Emmett was holding the cave and the water dish. “He’ll need these if he has to stay.”

“Good point, pup.”

Emmett rode in the back, holding Cosmo’s box. For the entire drive, he was completely silent. I could see him in the mirror, staring at the box. He was pale.

We got out of the car in front of the vet’s office. Emmett stopped before we got to the door. “Do you think he’ll be okay?” He was looking at Cosmo, not me.

Cosmo was already dead. This was all a pantomime.

“I don’t know, pup.”

My cheeks flushed with shame. Emmett was for the first time facing the death of something he loved, and I froze. Death is one of the few things I should have been equipped to explain, too. I understand death. I’m good at death. Except in the clutch, when I lied to my son about his dead pet.

I write about death for a living. More specifically, I write about events, crimes and disasters and such, in which people have recently become dead. Magazine stories, mostly, long narratives about awful things that, over three decades and six continents, have involved many hundreds of dead people. I have no idea how many because I’ve never had the inclination to trudge back through the years and count them all. But in Emmett’s lifetime, from his birth until the spring of third grade, the cumulative body count was four hundred and ninety-eight.

In fairness, almost half of those people were on a Malaysian airliner that disappeared in 2014. Most of the others were shot, which probably is the most common way people in my stories have died over the years, starting long ago with a newborn killed by his (clinically, legally, and temporarily) psychotic mother. A few were stabbed and some were blown up. At least twenty-five burned to death, possibly more depending on how finely one parses the cause of death, and the rest drowned or suffocated or were battered in one manner or another. One had a heart attack that almost certainly wasn’t the result of poisoning, but opinions differ. One was sawed cleanly in two at the waist.

Sometimes there are forensic reports and legal briefs to help explain how those people became dead. But the actual mechanics usually aren’t worth dwelling upon. Death is a plot point, and killing people on the page is not technically difficult, anyway. Death is an abbreviated narrative, the arc precise and clear, the trajectory wholly kinetic. Writing death well requires only restraint. There is no need to layer drama onto what is inherently dramatic, and no one deserves to have his or her last moment corrupted by clichés, especially nonsensical ones—bullets, for instance, are never pumped into anyone, though if they were, far fewer people would be killed by them.

The more interesting stories are who the dead were or what happened after they died or why they became dead in the first place or, usually, some combination of those things. Telling those stories, then, requires listening to the people who knew the dead or survived the catastrophe or treated the wounded or solved the crime or buried the bodies, and as many of those as are willing to talk. It’s not an especially difficult job, that part. Anyone with empathy and patience could do the listening. Traumatized people want to talk to an interested stranger more often than you would probably suspect. They remember the most curious details, too, like how a skull looks when a bullet explodes out the back. They cry a lot, and you try to make yourself small in those moments, not to crowd their grief. As a rule, it is indecent to interrupt.

The harder part is absorbing all of those memories and all of that sadness and rage and distilling it into sentences coherent enough for a stranger to understand. That part takes more practice.

None of that, the listening and absorbing and processing, is remotely the same as grieving. But immersion and repetition are rigorous teachers. Strange, really, that I hadn’t learned any wise and comforting words to ease the death of a snake.

The vet was about my age, graying hair and glasses, with a softness to his manner, the sort who will make a terrific grandfather someday. He introduced himself, asked Emmett his name, then nodded somberly.

“Emmett, I’m really sorry, but I’m afraid your snake died.”

Emmett did not visibly react, except for the first glistening of tears that he managed to keep from falling out of his eyes.

“What was his name?”

“Cosmo.”

“And how long have you had him?”

“Since Christmas.” His voice cracked.

The vet gave a slow nod. “I see,” he said. “And where did you get him?”

“Santa,” I interrupted, possibly with a hint of desperation. There were only so many life lessons Emmett needed confirmed in one day.

“But I think he got him at a pet store,” Emmett said. “All the stuff in his tank came from the pet store. And my dad said Santa can’t make a snake.”

“Well, yes, that’s true. But I think Santa might have gotten you a sick snake. He hadn’t eaten in a long time, is that right?”

“He never ate.”

“Yeah, that means he was probably sick.”

The room was quiet. “Maybe,” Emmett said, “Santa shouldn’t get animals from the pet store.”

The vet vigorously agreed. I looked at my shoes.

We buried Cosmo on the east side of the silver maple, where the ground was soft and loose from all the seasons we’d tried, and failed, to grow asparagus and artichokes. Emmett made a tombstone from a broken slate that had fallen from the roof and planted it next to the grave. He kept the tank in his room so that he could look at it, and the view wasn’t much different than the one he’d had on Christmas morning. If he wanted, and sometimes he did, he could pretend he still had a snake hiding in that little ceramic cave.

And then Louise got him the chickens.

She was buying tomato plants on the first Sunday in April at Barnes Supply Company, a shop west of downtown that an army colonel named Lee “Shorty” Barnes opened after fighting Nazis in World War II. It sold agricultural supplies until the spreading city absorbed the local farms, and then it sold mostly lawn and garden staples until Home Depot and Lowe’s sponged away that business. So the George family, which bought it when Shorty retired in 1991, recalibrated it into pet supplies, food and toys and bedding and such, but retained the agricultural roots. Shelves of herbs and vegetable plants are wheeled onto the sidewalk out front each spring, and there are bins of seeds mounted to a wall inside. Bags of soil and amendments, compost and manure and whatnot, are stacked out back, and they stock the tools to sow, cultivate, and harvest a large garden. They sell feed for chickens and, in the spring, actual chicks. They’re kept under lamps in the shed where the poultry waterers and feeders are shelved, with each breed, the Orpingtons and Easter eggers and Australorps, sorted into separate containers.

Louise brought home two barred Plymouth rocks, peeping charcoal puffs splotched with yellow. “The lady at Barnes said these are the best chickens to have as pets,” she told Emmett. “I know they can’t ever replace Cosmo, but they’re pretty cool, right?”

Emmett, eyes big as walnuts, scooped up a chick. “I’m going to call this one Comet,” he said, “and the other one Snowball.” Calvin did not argue for naming rights, a solid big-brother move.

“Why Comet and Snowball?” I asked. “Neither one looks like a comet or a snowball.”

“Comet does,” he said. “A comet is a big dirty snowball in space”—ah, yes, he’d binged Cosmos twice on Netflix, which also explained the original Cosmo—“and the chicks look like dirty snowballs. But I can’t call the other one Dirty Snowball.”

“Fair enough,” I said.

As luck would have it, chicks require almost the exact same environment as a ball python—a tank, shavings, and a heat lamp. They are, however, much more interactive than snakes. Every couple of days, we would cover the bathroom floor with newspaper, shut the door to keep the cat out, and let the chicks bounce around for a while. Chicken Time, we called it. They also grow very fast. Within a couple of weeks, Comet and Snowball were the size of squabs, their down replaced with feathers striped black and white, and ready to be moved to a small mail-order coop next to the barn.

I wasn’t expecting much from them once they were outdoors. Though I’ve always been fond of animals, I held the same agnosticism toward chickens as I did snakes. So far as I knew, they were among the lesser avian species, flying only in short, panicked bursts and incapable of asking for crackers or repeating dirty words. They adapted easily to living brief, miserable lives on factory farms, which is not at all their fault but nonetheless a subjugation that is difficult to imagine, say, an eagle or a hawk tolerating. Once they stopped being cute, I assumed Comet and Snowball would be skittish accessories to the yard, like squirrels. They would lay eggs and eat ticks and fertilize the garden, all worthwhile contributions but nothing over which affectionate bonds typically are formed.

And yet they were such charming creatures. I was usually the first one up, so I’d release Comet and Snowball in the morning, which to a chicken is a time of great joy. Their heads would pop up in the window of their hutch when they heard me crunch across the gravel, and they would hop down with tremendous enthusiasm. Pure gratitude, chickens. They never stopped chattering, their jabbering clucks eventually softening into satisfied tuts. “How are the single ladies this fine morning?” I’d ask as I tossed feed on the ground. Oh, they had a lot to say. On weekends, they followed Louise and me to the porch, eating ants and spiders while we drank our coffee and read the news. One of them, and usually both, would flap up on the arm of a chair and, from there, into a lap or onto a shoulder. If they weren’t with us and we couldn’t see them, we just needed to call. “C’mon, chicken friends,” one of us would yell, and they would come running in tandem, always together and perfectly synchronized.

By early July, the ladies were outgrowing their small coop. I decided to build something next to the barn, on the side where the roof extends like a giant carport over a wide patch of dirt where we keep the firewood and the lawn mower and, at the far end, a substantial pile of scraps and trash I kept promising to get hauled away.

I stared at the wall, puzzling out a new enclosure. Chief snorfled in the paddock. The chickens liked to wander near his hooves, and I used to worry he’d step on them, but he never did. It was midafternoon and very hot.

My phone chirped. It was a text to both me and Louise from our friend Tanja.

ANY CHANCE U GUYS WANT A PEACOCK? NO KIDDING!

I blinked once or twice.

I had never considered whether I wanted a peacock. When did that become an option? Where does one even get a peacock?

And why would Tanja think we’d want a peacock? Oh, right, because we have chickens and a barn, and it kind of looks like we live on a farm even though we don’t and… Wait, Tanja’s an attorney. How does she have a peacock to unload?

No, we didn’t want a peacock. What would we do with a peacock? Where would we put a peacock? I’m trying to find space for chickens, and they’re like, what, a tenth the size of a peacock?

My phone chirped again. Louise: I WILL SPEAK FOR THE GROUP: YES, PLEASE.
Andrew Ovenden

Sean Flynn is a National Magazine Award–winning journalist and author who's reported from six continents during the past thirty years. A long-time correspondent for GQ, his work has been widely anthologized and translated into nearly a dozen languages. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two boys.

"[Flynn’s] writing is often witty, sometimes glorious, and his tales wry and charming…Something magical happens to this hard-bitten reporter as he gets to know his peacocks...a fine starting point to finding meaning in a world both cruel and beautiful.” —Sy Montgomery, New York Times Book Review

 "Flynn recounts his misadventures as the naive new owner of a trio of Indian peacocks, and we can’t help rooting for him... a sparkling confessional from a man who tries to protect the innocent and beautiful from a world that he knows all too well can be relentlessly awful. Julie Zickefoose, The Wall Street Journal

“An entertaining, playful ode to our flashiest fowl.” —Julie Dunlap, Washington Independent Review of Books

“Flynn’s family romp is full of colorful and quirky details, beautiful writing, and unexpected twists that will have you viewing these magical birds in a new light.” The Daily Beast (The Best Summer Reads of 2021)

“Wry and moving.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“As readers follow Flynn’s journey, his clever insights and pleasing prose style will leave them alternating between moments of shock and bursts of laughter.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Sweet and often funny, Why Peacocks? is an engaging mix of memoir, history and journalism.”—Sarah McCraw Crow, BookPage

“Sean Flynn's writing has an easy, genuine flow, like a friend telling a story over dinner, and in this charming book his story is about peacocks. He is entirely successful in answering the question in the title, but saying this is a book about peacocks seems inadequate. It ends up being about so much more.”—David Sibley, author of the New York Times bestsellers What It’s Like to Be a Bird and The Sibley Guide to Birds

"Why Peacocks? is a wonderful book. At times moving and at times hilarious, always well written, it’s a story about family life and love, pets and peacocks, that evolves into an investigation of one of evolution’s biggest mysteries: Why does beauty exist?”—Patrik Svensson, author of the international bestseller The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World

“A truly wise and tender sparkler of a book. Weaving memoir, history, reportage, and mythology, Sean Flynn tells not just a quirky story about iridescent birds but a more profound one about family and parenthood, the innocence of childhood and our own mortality. I read it in one gulp, moved and humored and carried away by Flynn’s heart and artistry as a master storyteller.” —Michael Paterniti, author of the New York Times bestseller The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

“Ostensibly about peacocks, Flynn’s book is much more than that: it is a story woven with beauty and obsession and loss. Funny, poignant, very well written and a pleasure to read.”—Jonathan C. Slaght, author of Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl

"When I started this book, I hoped Sean Flynn would take me on an amusing romp through the strange world of peacocks and their people. He certainly did that—but Why Peacocks? is so much more. It is both a warm, generous memoir about family and a master-class in science writing that shifts seamlessly between wit and wonder. It is tender. It is stylish. But, in the tradition of E.B. White and Helen Macdonald, this is not a book about the pretty surfaces of things, as pretty as those surfaces are; it is a life-affirming meditation on the nature of beauty and mortality. I can't think of any book the world needs more right now." —Bronwen Dickey, author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon