Although many have considered the primordial question, “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” few have paused to consider the equally daunting question of, “which came first, the chicken or the peacock?” In the case of Flannery O’Connor, the answer is simple: the chicken. A New York journalist stoked the flames of Flannery O’Connor’s aviary passions when he featured the five-year-old in an article in 1930. The article described the feat the child had conquered: teaching her pet chicken to walk backwards. According to O’Connor, the reversible bird was merely the beginning, for she soon developed quite a collection of chickens, including a hen she named Colonel Eggbert, whom she dressed in a white pique coat with a lace collar. O’Connor eventually came to own several members of the entire feathered species, including pheasants, quails, turkeys, geese, ducks, culminating with what she came to call the King of Birds, the peacock.
Flannery O’Connor created her aviary at the family farm, Andalusia, which her mother, Regina O’Connor, had inherited in 1947. Regina O’Connor, much like her daughter, disassembled sexist stereotypes of the mid-20th century by running the successful dairy farm near-single-handedly, with only occasional visits from her co-inheritor and brother Louis Cline. With the onset of lupus, the debilitating disease that killed her father years earlier, Flannery O’Connor joined her mother at Andalusia in 1951. In an effort to make the farm her own, and as a testament to her enduring love of birds, O’Connor purchased her first peacocks via mail-order from Florida in 1952. O’Connor’s original delivery of the fantastical birds consisted of one peacock, one peahen, and a fresh brood of four peachickens. By 1961 she estimated that the brood had grown to exceed forty.
The colorful and eccentric flock captured the attention of locals during O’Connor’s last decade. In her essay “The King of Birds,” O’Connor describes the variety of visitors to Andalusia and their reactions to her peacocks. Everyone from passing truck drivers to telephone linemen, entire first-grade classes to local farmers, had something to say about the peacocks and, more specifically, their tails. The first graders would gasp and exclaim about the bird’s “underwear” at the sight of their underlying plumage; the local farmer proclaimed to his children that the rare peacock was “the king of the birds,” a term affectionately claimed by O’Connor; and the truckdriver, after stopping near a roadside peacock, burst out, “get a load of that bastard!” The paradoxical sight of a traditional dairy farm coupled with the exotic birds never failed to raise the curiosity, and voices, of visitors to Andalusia.
The peacocks’ fame also travelled outside of the boundaries of the farm. The writer sent their colorful tail feathers to her friends and literary correspondents. O’Connor was also known to gift plumes to Milledgeville residents for use in their hat bands. The peacock feather even became the logo for much of O’Connor’s written work. But not everyone’s reaction to her flock was positive: O’Connor’s mother frequently cursed the peacocks for eating her flowers, while her uncle rued the loss of his favorite fruit, figs, to the hungry birds. And when they ate the peanuts off the peanut hay, stored in barns for the cow herds, even the dairymen castigated the peacocks. Despite her fellow residents’ indisposition and animosity toward her peacocks, O’Connor stood her ground and cultivated her flock until her death from lupus in 1964.
Today, Andalusia is open as a tourist attraction to fans of the literary giant. Although not descended from members of the original flock, peacocks remain on the property and still garner laudations from visitors. The modern generation consists of two peahens and one peacock, all named after O’Connor’s more famous fictional characters: Mary Grace, Joy/Hulga, and Manley Pointer. And so Flannery O’Connor’s literary legacy and the legacy of her peacocks are intrinsically intertwined. Both O’Connor’s literary works and the works of her aviary are bound to have a following for decades to come.