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A Chicken in Every Driveway

For 30 years, the wild fowl have ruled the roost in Fitzgerald, Ga. But some fed-up residents are squawking about the noise and filth.

August 06, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As their numbers increased, people learned to accommodate and even appreciate them: Traffic 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, residents 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 lawyer.

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 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."

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 that he thought could 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 officers had considered them prime hunting birds. They raved about them -- when flushed, the birds "blasted into the air with a flurry of wings," said I. Lehr Brisbin Jr., a professor of biology at the University of Georgia, 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 the remaining birds were killed, their eggs destroyed and the experiment shut down, said Frank Parrish, 74, who retired from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources after 30 years.

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

Not all the birds died -- that much is clear -- but residents have competing explanations for how they wound up on the streets. Some think that a few survived, unbeknownst 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 -- 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, 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 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 hundred my foot," Pate said. "We probably have 10 to 12,000 chickens."

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