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Peacocks leave feather bounty

JOE BENNETT
Last updated 08:38 10/02/2014
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

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OPINION: When I stopped smoking, peacocks arrived. I wrote about them and a few people wrote back expressing disbelief, either that I'd stopped smoking or that I had peacocks. But both things were true, and they remain true three months later.

The peacocks arrived as wanderers but I bribed them to stay by hanging a hopper full of chook food from the branch of a pine. A cloud of sparrows soon found it too, of course, along with the bullying magpies, so in the last three months I've spent perhaps $200 feeding birds. But $200 is only a week and a half of smokes, and the peacocks are a joy.

There are five of them, and one lone hen. She's sparrow-brown and dowdy, but to the gorgeous peacocks she's Helen of Troy. The five boys follow her as sad souls follow sports teams, or monks God.

I don't know if she favours any of the five or all of them or none. But they parade the hill behind my place en masse, her gang of strutting suitors, each dragging a tail he's grown to please her that's more than a metre long.

In sunshine the boys are a paint shop catalogue. The blue of a peacock's chest is richer than any colour has a right to be. But when it's wet the tail becomes a soggy burden and the birds hop onto the gate beneath the pine to sit the weather out. From my living room I see them silhouetted against a leaden sky, strange gargoyle shapes like figures out of Gormenghast. The Languid Justicers I call them.

I mowed a swathe through chest-deep grass up the hill from my back fence. As the peacocks' courage grew they started down the swathe towards my house. Each day they came a little closer. Soon they were perching on my fence as if for photographs. Then a woman who knows told me I didn't want them in the garden. They'd scratch up everything, she said, so I set the dog on them.

It wasn't easy. He'd barked to start with at their distant silhouettes but slowly he'd got used to them and judged, I think, that they were chooks of sorts and he's been taught to leave chooks be. Besides, he's a fat and lazy beast, and to get the peacocks he would have to run uphill.

But, "Go on", I said to him one afternoon as the birds sat on my fence and eyed a bed of beans, "give them a fright". He looked at them, he looked at me, he looked at them again and then he charged. The effect was greater and more gratifying than any dog could dream. The birds erupted. The screams they uttered could have woken corpses. And as they screamed they beat their wings with furious endeavour to lift their flesh and tails beyond his reach. Screaming still they flew as dragons are supposed to fly, and lodged high in the pine trees up the hill. Their wings were the colour of strong tea.

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They've not come back to my garden. But they've stayed around and two weeks ago when I went up to feed them I found feathers. They'd begun to shed their tails. I didn't know they did.

As a kid I collected conkers. After a windy autumn night I'd leave the house before breakfast and run to the grove of trees on Dale Ave. I had to be first there, to find them fresh fallen, still in their hard-spiked casing. I'd peel away the green and creamy flesh. The nuts within shone like polished antique furniture. Beneath the shine the grain swirled like frozen smoke. Quite simply they were beautiful. I took them home by the greedy bagload.

When I first picked up a tail feather I felt the same. I had to own it. The lust to seize and retain beauty is the source of many of the world's ills, but every morning since I've climbed the hill and gathered a handful of discarded feathers like a posy of astonishing flowers. By now I must have more than 100. I never cease to marvel at the way the herls shimmer greeny-bronze. Each single eye is a blob of pitch in a puddle of petrol. No human hand could begin to make such a thing.

I plan to do nothing more with my feathers than the Queen does with the Crown Jewels. But a neighbour does. He's going to tie a fishing fly using peacock herl and fur from his cat. I think it's a fine idea. The Peapuss Glory, we'll call it, for the discerning trout. Which we'll then smoke.

- The Southland Times

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