Annual festival in Georgia city focuses on unusual residents

Q: What’s the tale of the wild chickens in the town of Fitzgerald?

A: In Fitzgerald, no one really knows which came first: the chicken or the egg?

The story dates to the 1960s, when the Georgia Department of Natural Resources wanted to supply the state with an additional game bird.

So it relocated populations of small Burmese chickens, known for their orange and yellow bodies with black tail feathers, throughout Georgia.

Many of those populations flew the coop, but the Burmese chickens located at the nearby Ocmulgee River—about seven miles away — came to downtown Fitzgerald, in south central Georgia.

Local legend says that when the chickens were brought to the Ocmulgee River area, foxes and alligators ate many of the birds, said Alesia Davis, Fitzgerald’s tourism director.

However, it’s believed that some residents brought eggs into town, where they hatched. The chicken population flourished in Fitzgerald, a community of more than 9,000 residents about 180 miles from Atlanta.

Now, the town has about 600 chickens. Some are pets, while others roam wild around downtown.

Even after all these years, Davis said the residents and visitors remain fascinated with the town’s poultry population.

“They love the way they look, their coloring and the fact they fly into the trees and sleep at night,” Davis said. “They don’t seem to have any enemies downtown. There aren’t any wild animals after them. So they’re gonna stay.”

The chickens strut their stuff around town so much that the Fitzgerald Wild Chicken Festival is in its 17th year (it replaced the town's annual rattlesnake roundup). About 7,000 attendees flocked to the festival in 2016.

This year’s festival, on March 17-18, includes a chicken crowing contest, classic car cruise-in and soccer game. Also, there’s a 5K and a 1-mile fun run in honor of Senior Airman Michael Buras, who was from Fitzgerald and who died in 2010 when an improvised explosive device detonated on the roadside in Afghanistan.

This year, new events include a hog round-up, which join family-friendly events and food. Performers include The Crescent Circus and dance band The Bushmen, and the festival ends with a big chicken dance.

Lori Johnston and Kelsey E. Green with Fast Copy News Service contributed to this article.