Have you ever thought, What my household needs is a few peacocks? Me neither. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying Sean Flynn’s Why Peacocks? An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird, which details what happened after his family took on some pet peacocks. Flynn; his wife, Louise; and their two young sons already had two chickens, a dog and a cat—so when a friend asked if they wanted a peacock, they didn’t immediately say no. Before long, the family had adopted three: Carl, Mr. Pickle and Ethel.
Flynn, a longtime magazine journalist, often writes about emotional subjects, such as Arizona firefighters who died battling a wildfire or the 2011 domestic terrorist attack in Norway, and he doesn’t shy away from sentiment here either. Still, he approaches his subject with a science writer’s eye for detail. “The noise began in the middle of April,” he writes about the peacocks’ mating calls, for instance. “Mr. Pickle, a rising two-note burst, E above middle C, up to G, a quick slur down to F-sharp . . . not a plaintive cry, desperate and whiny, but assertive, a robust announcement; I am here.”
Flynn charts his own increasing obsession with the birds, the hours he spends each day in a lawn chair, aiming to entice the skittish peacocks to eat a blueberry out of his hand. When Carl becomes gravely ill, the endeavor to treat the peacock will be familiar to any pet owner who’s pondered the price of veterinary care, and yet far stranger.
The narrative of Why Peacocks? alternates between this family’s story and more journalistic accounts, as Flynn leads us through a natural and cultural history of peacocks, including the evolution of male peacocks’ shimmering feather trains and the roles peacocks have played in religious traditions, making entertaining digressions along the way. He visits Palos Verdes, California, where peacocks have become a nuisance, and Dunfermline, Scotland, where a long-ago gift from Andrew Carnegie led to iconic peacocks in a public park.
Although this book is a quick read, it’s well researched with an extensive bibliography. Sweet and often funny, Why Peacocks? is an engaging mix of memoir, history and journalism.