Chickens raising feathers in Georgia

FITZGERALD, Ga. – At the end of the day in Fitzgerald, when shop owners hang up “closed” signs and the fierce heat fades a little, chickens come out of the shadows. They hop across Main Street, tail feathers arching delicately behind them. They scratch and scratch on lawns, with one ropy foot cocked in the air. Roosters, their wattles electric red, chase hens around azaleas.

It’s been 30 years since wild chickens began roaming the streets here, the unintended result of an experiment by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. As their numbers increased, people learned to accommodate and even appreciate them. Traffic often stops while rows of fluffy chicks cross to safety and hop up on the curb, one by one. “Love Dem Wild Chickens,” reads a bumper sticker distributed by the city’s tourism office.

But this summer, the city’s citizens have split over the chickens. Some hail the chickens as the last genetic link to the red jungle fowl, the revered pets of the Egyptian pharaohs, and demand that they be protected.

Others say they have had enough: Enough dead-of-night crowing, enough scratching, and enough defecating. They describe an occasion when a chicken – the breed can fly whole city blocks – hurtled through a plate glass window in the office of a prominent local attorney.

Fed-up homeowners have petitioned city and state officials for humane ways to reduce the population; methods discussed include spraying eggs with mineral oil to prevent them from hatching, or distributing a medication that would reduce the sex drive of roosters.

No easy solution has emerged, and over the course of the summer the rhetoric surrounding the chickens has turned caustic.

Among the proposals presented to the City Council was one to donate the chickens to homeless people, who “might appreciate more protein in their diets.”

“We don’t hate chickens,” said Diana Pate of the Fitzgerald Citizens Committee for Wild Chicken Deportation. “Chickens are here for a purpose. God planted chickens here to feed people.”

Chicken explosion

No one ever intended to settle hundreds – some say thousands – of wild chickens around the front porches and scattered palm trees of this south Georgia city, population 8,700.

In the late 1960s, a government biologist named Gardiner Bump asked to use a fish hatchery in the woods nearby to introduce an exotic bird to the Georgia forest – one he thought might become a craze among hunters, like the runaway success of the ringneck pheasant, a bird from China that was propagated in North Dakota.

The bird in question was the Burmese red jungle fowl, native to central India. The ancient progenitor of all breeds of domestic chickens, the red jungle fowl is small, brilliantly colored, audacious, flighty and erratic.

Under the Raj in India, British colonial officers considered them prime hunting birds and raved about them. When flushed, they “blasted into the air with a flurry of wings,” said Lehr Brisbin, a professor of biology at the University of Georgia who is an authority on the bird.

Bump had heard that “a man could hunt them with pride,” Brisbin said.

The experiment in Georgia, however, was disastrous. When released, the birds exploded into the air as expected – but they perished in the woods, and their chicks were gobbled up by raccoons and foxes.

By the mid-1970s, the results were so discouraging that employees killed the remaining birds, destroyed their eggs and shut the experiment down, said Frank Parrish, 74, who spent 30 years with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

“Poor Dr. Bump,” Brisbin said. “He tried hard. He meant well.”

Birds on the streets

Not all the birds died – that much is clear – although residents have competing explanations for how they wound up on the streets. Some believe that a few survived, unknown to state authorities, in the dark of Georgia’s pine forest.

The more commonly accepted explanation is Parrish’s, that a well-connected Fitzgerald man – whose name has remained a secret to this day – persuaded the hatchery superintendent to give him a few red jungle fowl eggs, which he slipped under a bantam hen to raise. The chicks bonded with their adoptive mother and went on to breed with bantams, and were allowed to roam free, Parrish said.

The descendants settled on the west side of town among the stately houses of the city’s leading families. Nesting in rain gutters and shade trees, they wake before dawn and spend the day hopping from one yard to another, scratching for bugs in the dirt. They have little apparent fear of humans or other animals.

“You know, cats are kind of scared of them,” said Gerald Thompson, 69, Fitzgerald’s mayor.

The size of the population is a matter of debate. Jan Gelders, 56, a local activist and founder of the For the Birds Campaign, estimated its size at a few hundred.

Pate, 56, a former high school classmate, disagreed.

“A couple of hundred, my foot,” Pate said. “We probably have 10,000 to 12,000 chickens.”

To Brisbin, the flock offers a tantalizing opportunity for scientists to study the ways of the chicken. The Fitzgerald flock may well be unique in the world, he said. Without medical care, it has apparently overcome diseases and parasites that kill off free-ranging chickens in other places. Safe from predators, the birds are flourishing in something close to a pure chicken society.

Residents take action

If the residents or poultry industry were willing to pay a stipend of $30,000, an enterprising graduate student could “get to know them, live with them, become the Jane Goodall of chickens, and write a thesis,” Brisbin said.

But the residents seem to be looking for a more direct plan of action.

Some of them have long since taken matters into their own hands, despite laws against using firearms and laying out poison within the city limits.

“A lot of guys I know run over them,” said Britt Benoit, 16. “The ladies will see them do it and call the police. I’ve heard of people shooting them with BB’s. I’ve heard of people poisoning the chickens.”

Melissa Burgess, a hospital collections agent, said she had been charmed by the chickens, like everyone else, before she moved to a handsome home on Lee Street. Soon, she found herself devoting nearly an hour every day to replacing landscaping mulch the chickens disrupted while she was at work. The crowing jerked her out of sleep at 3 and 4 a.m. night after night.

This spring, she began collecting signatures for a petition asking the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to take steps “to eliminate the wild chicken population.” About 700 residents signed the petition, but Burgess was pained to realize that many of her neighbors were unsympathetic. They did not seem to care “how many people were bothered” by the chickens, said Burgess, 41.

Chicken support

Indeed, the push for population control has prompted a wave of support for the chickens. Under the auspices of her organization, Gelders and her supporters collected 1,300 signatures in support of protecting the birds. A City Council meeting on the issue last month drew 80 people, evenly divided, said Tim Anderson, editor of the local Herald-Leader.

Gelders tirelessly argues for the birds’ virtues. The two dozen excitable wild chickens roosting in her back yard, for example, more than adequately perform the function of a guard dog. She gives dark warnings about the surge in the insect population that might result from the chickens’ removal.

And she happily shares her research into the history of the Burmese red jungle fowl, and its status as a religious or decorative animal in ancient societies. To Gelders’ annoyance, many people still consider them to be chickens, and mongrel chickens, at that.

“How do you inform south Georgia rural people that something that looks like a chicken, and walks like a chicken, and sometimes clucks like a chicken, is something more than a chicken – it’s special, and rare?” she said.

A large number of Gelders’ neighbors support her campaign out of simple affection.

“I love to hear them crowing early in the morning,” said Alice Register, 67, who works at Holt’s Bakery.

From the sanctuary of his office, Thompson has watched the latest round of squabbling with the heavy-lidded gaze of a man who has won eight consecutive mayoral elections.

For the 36 years he has been mayor, Thompson has avoided taking any public position on the chickens, an issue that emerges and then recedes every few years.

At public meetings, Thompson sets strict limits on advocates’ speaking times, and he recently calmed the waters by appointing a committee to examine the problem.

Among his constituents are those who whisper that he is a chicken supporter; others say, with equal certainty, that he can’t stand the birds.

Asked about it, he gives a little smile.

“A lot of folks would like to blame somebody, and see it get all hostile,” Thompson said. “But we just don’t need that.”

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