The first time it happened, I assumed I was hallucinating. We were 38 degrees and five hours into the move to our new apartment in Canberra, and the day was already running at the corners.
But the second time, I pulled over the car. The peacock who had caught my attention watched me suspiciously from the footpath as I dialled the RSPCA.
That's when a man stuck his head over a nearby fence. "Don't worry, darling," he laughed. "He's a local."
It's the mystery that's long prowled the streets of Canberra's south - just where did the rogue peacock pride of Red Hill and Narrabundah come from? In the decades the birds have roamed wild, attracting admirers and vexing rangers, theories about their origins have come thick and fast:
- The peafowl were released when an old zoo closed down on Mugga Lane.
- They escaped from an embassy after an unknown diplomatic incident.
- They were the star acts of a travelling circus that came to town.
- They're the only surviving offspring of a crack team of tactical peacocks that defected from Russia during the height of the Cold War.*
According to the Canberra Ornithologists Group, Indian peafowl are an introduced "escapee" rarely sighted in the ACT, yet reported as far afield as Pialligo and the National Library in Parkes.
This year, the birds drew international attention after the ACT government proposed (and then quickly dumped) a management plan designed to get rid of them.
And I decided it was time to get to know my neighbours a little better.
Andrew, Second of his Name
Susannah still cries when she talks about the first peacock. He was known as Andrew (after the politician) and Henry up on Brockman Street but to Susannah, a long-time Narrabundah local, he was Harry.
Her son Rowan found him on their doorstep one afternoon in 1992 after school. The family rang the ACT government, the RSPCA, even the embassies down the road. No one knew where he had come from. So they took him in.
"He lived in our backyard for years until we got a dog, then he moved into the front yard and from there he sort of became the whole street's," Susannah says.
After the 2003 Canberra bushfires, a juvenile male and two females moved into the area. There were rumours that a little clutch of peafowl was also frequenting a nursery in Pialligo.
"Then it happened; not long after the other birds came" Susannah says.
"A carload of youths came tearing down the road one day, they lined Harry up in their sights, mounted the curb and they killed him."
A neighbour who witnessed it all buried the bird, still with his full train of feathers, in his backyard and the street held a wake in Harry's honour.
"We wore peacock colours," Susannah remembers. "A local artist had taken a video of Harry mating with a female that same morning he was killed. He waited all that time to mate, he was always calling, honking, for a partner."
That Christmas, when a little brood of chicks appeared on the street for the first time, Susannah knew Harry's line of Narrabundah peafowl had begun.
So where did Harry come from? And was he really the first peacock?
Local birdwatcher Geoffrey Dabb thinks not. A few months before Harry appeared, he'd spotted another peacock on Green Street and tracked the bird back to Marymead's children's centre, which kept animals at the time.
Though the charity says peafowl haven't been seen at its Narrabundah site for many years now, Geoffrey says in the '90s the bird would often abscond from the centre in search of food from generous locals.
"It would return to Marymead but it always escaped again," he says.
Locals recall how Harry, who was not believed to have come from Marymead, and the Green Street bird would honk at each other, sometimes streets apart, as they made house calls in the neighbourhood.
It was also around that time that Geoffrey spied more birds in the gardens of a caravan park on Narrabundah Lane, before dogs chased them deeper into the suburb.
The zoo theory
But the most common theory about the peafowl, told by locals, the RSPCA and even the ACT government, places them in town and at large even earlier still.
Transport Canberra and City Services said it was most likely the birds escaped (or were set free) when the old Mugga Lane Zoo closed in Symonston in the late '80s, though a spokeswoman admitted the evidence was anecdotal.
I tracked down the former owner of the Mugga Lane Zoo, Terry Thomas, who tells a different story.
While he confirmed he kept peafowl at the zoo, he said the birds were already loose in Narrabundah by the time the zoo eventually closed (under different management).
"I was asked to see if I could catch a couple of them, in about 1982," he said.
He didn't have any luck but admits he's always wondered what happened to the animals at the park, which he sold in 1989.
A diplomatic incident?
Back in Narrabundah, sunset is now "peacock hour" for Lyn Smith, who has lived in the suburb for almost 50 years. Each evening, when the light sinks down behind the hills, the birds will appear suddenly on footpaths and in gardens.
"They definitely didn't come from the Mugga Lane zoo, they were around from the late '70s," Lyn says.
"And it wasn't a circus either, the ones that came to town back then never had peacocks."
Other long-time locals who spoke to The Canberra Times agreed. If there was once, on an otherwise quiet Canberra afternoon, a daring peafowl break-out from the daily grind of circus performing, I haven’t found a record of it so far.
But Lyn has her own story to tell me. Back when she was in her first decade of life in Narrabundah, there was a rumour about one of her neighbours. He was a diplomat on a posting from a country Lyn can't remember now, and he was known to own a brood of peacocks.
When he left, the local legend goes, he released the birds into the neighbourhood.
I call embassies in the area. Many have since moved but no one remembers keeping peafowl.
Associate Professor Phillip Cassey at the University of Adelaide, who has researched feral peafowl populations on Kangaroo Island, says he wouldn't be surprised if the diplomat story was true.
"These are very charismatic birds, associated with elegance, they're almost a curiosity," he says.
"We often see them, perhaps more as backyard animals than pets, but that's where they come from, or zoological gardens and rural properties."
The trail starts to go cold. I call Tim DeWan, a long-time Narrabundah local and the architect of the social media campaign to stop a peafowl cull.
"It's just so Canberra, isn't it?" He laughs. "Peacocks in the suburbs. Maybe we'll never know."
'Majestic disco chickens'
While their history remains cloaked in mystery, this year the birds' future looked almost as murky.
In April, the ACT government put out plans to rehome or euthanise the peafowl colonies, citing concerns they would spread to the nearby Red Hill reserve as well as long-standing complaints about their noise, "temper" and even - ahem - droppings.
The draft plan considered everything from shooting the birds to an expensive form of sterilisation, before settling on a catch, rehome or euthanise approach. Two earlier trapping programs in 2013 and then 2015 were largely ruled as failures.
In an "overwhelming" response, more than 400 submissions to the plan were lodged with the government. About 233 wanted the birds to stay, while 60 wanted them gone for good. Another 118 didn't pick a clear side, opposed to euthanising the birds but many in favour of rehoming.
The government has since gone back to the drawing board, in talks with locals about formulating a new monitoring program.
Geoffrey and other close observers of the Narrabundah colony report the birds remain small in stature, likely due to inbreeding, and the number of chicks sighted each year is low.
Professor Cassey says the risk to the native environment from peafowl is fairly minimal.
"They're nowhere near as damaging as other [birds], it's more a nuisance thing ... but we have to be careful that pets don't become pests ... because so often that's how biosecurity threats develop."
In the case of the Narrabundah peafowl, which often fall prey to foxes or cars, Professor Cassey says the real surprise was how long such a small population has lasted.
"They seem pretty resilient."
To Susannah, one of the peafowl's local "guardians", that's no mystery.
Every Christmas since the one they lost Harry, she says something wonderful happens on Wylie Street. The peafowl come bearing gifts.
They go from door to door, from safe house to safe house, she says, and introduce their new chicks to the locals.
"They know which houses are safe, it's amazing.
"They're part of our history here and we love them."
*I might have started this rumour.