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When a beloved pet gets sick, it can be distressing for the entire family. But as Sean Flynn discovered, it’s especially bad when your pet is a peacock.
When Carl became ill in February 2018, Flynn desperately needed to take the bird to the vet. But how was he meant to catch and subdue a creature not known for trusting humans?
Flynn’s vet suggested sneaking up on Carl, pinning his wings and clamping his legs. But he had to be fast, “like milliseconds fast,” the doctor advised — or he could end up with a black eye or broken nose.
“They can really get those wings swinging,” his vet said.
“What about the talons?” Flynn asked.
“If he catches you with one of those,” the vet replied, “you’re gonna bleed a lot.”
So Flynn borrowed a net from a fishing buddy and threw it over Carl’s head, then “dropped to my knees and smothered him like a fumbled football,” he writes in his new book, “Why Peacocks? An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird” (Simon & Schuster), out now.
The prognosis was not good — multiple organ failure caused by lead and zinc poisoning. But with a costly surgery and drugs used to flush out the metals, Carl made a full recovery.
It was just the beginning of the learning curve for Flynn and his family. As he explains in his book, owning peacocks involves a lot more than admiring their colorful plumage — including knowing how to protect them from foxes, expanding their coop to accommodate the growing brood, and figuring out what to do with the eggs that start appearing all over the yard like it’s Easter Sunday.
Flynn had never planned to own a peacock. When he and his pregnant wife Louise, also a writer, moved from Boston to a farmhouse in North Carolina 13 years ago, it was for the warmer climate and open space.
They adopted a few chickens and thought that was it. But then, in July 2017, a text came from a friend and neighbor: “Any chance u guys want a peacock?”
A local farmer with over two dozen peacocks, first introduced to her family farm in 1977 by her grandfather, was trying to unload the latest generation because a great horned owl had been attacking and killing her flock.
Flynn was reluctant at first: “I hadn’t wanted any peacocks, for the same reason I’d never wanted koalas or a narwhal,” he writes. But “now that those fantastical birds had been presented as a reasonable proposition, of course I wanted one.”
Flynn expected just one bird, but he ended up with three because, “They’re a social clique.”
He paid $125 for the trio, which turned out to be a pretty good deal. On classified ad sites like Birds Now, peacocks go from a few hundred dollars to $1,500 each, depending on their fertility, age and breeder.
Flynn and his family named the peacocks Ethel, Carl and Mr. Pickle. And so, a creature that Flynn and his family had only seen in zoos became a beast that lived in their own backyard, patrolling “like a sentry in dress uniform . . . every so often throw[ing] up a fabulous spray of feathers.”
‘I hadn’t wanted any peacocks, for the same reason I’d never wanted koalas.’
Sean Flynn, author
The grand displays of plumage typically only happen during mating season, when the males are trying to attract females. In fact, their spectacular feathers are likely the evolutionary result of female preferences, “coaxed from the male over untold generations a peculiar beauty that she finds pleasing,” Flynn writes.
Peacocks originated in Southern Asia and Malaysia, and were first domesticated in China more than 4,000 years ago. King Solomon imported peacocks to Israel nearly a thousand years before Christ, and Aristotle was a fan back in 350 B.C. Domesticated peacocks were imported to American shores in the early 19th century, mostly as status symbols for rich people. “Lucky” Baldwin, a land baron who owned more than 40,000 acres of Los Angeles County, was one of the first, bringing 50 peacocks to his ranch in 1880.
It’s unclear how many peacocks live in the United States today as pets, but the United Peafowl Association, an online community of peacock breeders and enthusiasts, lists just 163 members.
Owning a peacock is a long-term commitment — their average life span is 20 years — and even figuring out what to feed them can be complicated. Flynn was surprised to learn there are four different varieties of Purina-brand Game Bird Chow. He opted for the “growth-and-plumage maintenance formulation.”
Owning two males and one female was a recipe for disaster, he learned, as it was “a sex-fueled cage match waiting to happen.” Peacocks aren’t typically aggressive, but during mating season — from late spring to early summer — they can be violent if there aren’t enough females for every available male.
Mating season could be especially loud, with the males making a shrieking cry to attract females. Flynn compares the sound to the wailing of a dying child. He was fully prepared to anger neighbors. “I expected a knock on the door from a city official or a peeved, sleepy-eyed stranger,” he writes. “But it never came.”
Looking for people who shared his new obsession, Flynn traveled to Kansas City, Miss., in October 2018 for the 25th annual convention for members of the United Peafowl Association. There were presentations on how to free range birds, the latest developments in peafowl nutrition, and seminars on how to examine fecal samples for parasites, “with both microscopes and poop provided,” Flynn writes. (Peacocks are particularly susceptible to worm infestations and other parasites, and their excrement needs to be regularly inspected.)
He also met like-minded hobbyists and serious collectors. At a bar in Kansas City, Flynn shared peacock stories with Ray Watts from Macon, Ga., who claimed he once sold peacocks to (the late) author Flannery O’Connor, owner of at least 40 of the birds. O’Connor was so enamored by peacocks, “she decorated letters and gifts with feathers . . . and tucked the birds into her stories as scenery and symbols,” writes Flynn.
Today, famous peacock owners include Martha Stewart, who has 16 of the birds roaming freely on her 153-acre farm in Bedford, NY, and the late Hugh Hefner, who kept several at his Playboy Mansion zoo.
But after foxes started prowling Flynn’s property, he couldn’t allow his flock to wander around unprotected. He built a new pen with heavy-gauge wire, which shielded his peacocks from predators but also took some of the joy out of owning them.
“It’s like the tree that falls in the forest: Is a peacock still magnificent if he can’t be admired from outside the garbage coop?” he writes.
Still, Flynn continued to add to his collection: with three more females because the UPA “recommended a four-to-one ratio of girls to boys.”
Caring for his peacocks became a full-time job. During the summer of 2018, the females laid 30 eggs, each of them beige and roughly two times the size of a chicken egg. Flynn and his family could have eaten or sold them — peacock eggs sell from anywhere from $8 to $40 per egg online — but he opted instead to donate them all to a local veterinary nurse, who was raising ducks, peacocks, and other rescue birds on her farm.
Today, Flynn, 56, and his teenage sons Calvin, 15, and Emmett, 13, are enamored with their flock, even though they’ve never established an intimacy with them. Peacocks, after all, will never snuggle in your lap, purring as you stroke their chin, like most normal pets.
But Flynn did make a connection with Mr. Pickle, who finally trusted him enough to eat a blueberry from his open palm. And sometimes, when he visits his birds, they sit and listen to him as he talks.
“They are comfortable with me,” Flynn writes. “I take some strange pride in that fact.”
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