From 2004: Fitzgerald townsfolk cry fowl

Wild chickens have come home to roost in the south Georgia city, and it’s no paltry problem

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Former Journal-Constitution reporter Cameron McWhirter introduced readers to the feral fowl of Fitzgerald on July 22, 2004. The intrepid Mark Davis, reporting for the AJC, has updated the story of the town’s bid (biddy?) to erect a topiary chicken to rival Marietta’s famed Big Chicken. Lest we be accused of chickening out by not crowing over our original story, here’s what McWhirter scratched together for AJC readers back then. — Mandi Albright, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fitzgerald — Roosters stand on cars and crow at 2 a.m., mistaking streetlights for the sun. Clucking hens, a line of chicks in tow, stop traffic. Chickens scratch up flower beds and pine straw. They roost in trees and on rooftops. Gangs of 20 or more overrun people’s porches, squawking and defecating.

Chickens gone wild lay eggs all over this South Georgia town: in bushes, under porches, in garages.

A few years back, these mysterious renegade descendants of imported Asian jungle chickens and Georgia domestic chickens could be seen on a handful of residential streets in Fitzgerald.

Today they can be seen and heard everywhere among the 8,700 human residents. The best estimate is that the feral birds -- chickens who have returned to the wild from captivity -- now number about 2,000. Their chicks, which most people here call biddies, are ubiquitous.

”If every biddy that was born lived,” said Betty Pitts, 56, who has lived in Fitzgerald most of her life, “you couldn’t walk ‘round this town for chickens.”

Cloe Harper, 66, doesn’t care if the birds -- with black feathers (and bright red plumes on the roosters) -- are a notable example of nature’s adaptability. With her bad legs, she daily has to chase the street-tough poultry from her tomato plants.

”Kill ‘em all,” she says.

Earlier this year, more than 500 people signed a petition to get rid of the odd birds.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Others in Fitzgerald, however, have grown to love the fowl. The Jaycees have renamed their annual “Rattlesnake Roundup” the “Wild Chicken Festival.” Sales of “Love Dem Wild Chickens” bumper stickers are brisk. Self-appointed chicken advocate Jan Gelders has gathered more than 1,300 signatures to have Fitzgerald declare the chickens the town bird.

”They are part of our culture, part of our town,” Gelders said. “To get rid of them would make this town very, very blah.”

At a council meeting in June, about 80 people showed up to talk about the poultry problem. Half the room wanted to fricassee them and the other half wanted to hand the cluckers the keys to the city. No issue that anyone can remember had drawn so many people to a city meeting, said Tim Anderson, editor of The Fitzgerald Herald-Leader.

”If they weren’t so serious about it, it would be funny,” he said.

Stuck in the middle is Gerald Thompson, the longtime mayor. He wrote the state Department of Natural Resources for help, but the department replied that the chickens were not technically wild, and therefore not the state’s problem. The department did offer to provide some future technical assistance on ways to deal with the chickens.

This month Thompson appointed a committee to try to find answers. The mayor balanced the committee with two pro-chicken residents and two anti-chicken residents. Ideas ranged from sterilization to limited hunting to trapping.

”We have to find some middle ground,” he said. “I told the committee, ‘If you want to keep all our chickens, you’re not going to be happy. If you want to get rid of all of our chickens, you’re not going to be happy.’“

Chicken paradise

The saga of Fitzgerald’s wild chickens began in the 1960s. What exactly happened remains unclear.

State wildlife experts decided, with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to import wild red bantam chickens from the jungles of South Asia. The chickens were raised at a state facility about 10 miles from Fitzgerald. The idea was to raise the Asian chickens, then release them into the wild as game birds. The plan flopped. The foreign birds were killed off quickly by predators and bad weather. The government abandoned the idea.

Some people say leftover birds at the state facility somehow made their way to Fitzgerald, like a roving band of guerrilla fowl. Others say someone — some people say they know who, but won’t reveal the secret — smuggled a few wild chicken eggs back to Fitzgerald and raised them with domestic chickens. When the wild chickens grew up, they bred with the locals, creating new mongrel chickens. Some of these crossbreeds then flew the coop.

Once the hybrids got loose in Fitzgerald, they loved it. They could fly up and roost in trees, escaping the few predators that existed in town. There was plenty of food. People even set out birdseed for them. The chickens started nesting almost year-round, producing thousands of chicks.

Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin Jr., a biology professor at the University of Georgia who works at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, said he finds the Fitzgerald chickens an evolutionary marvel. Brisbin said he had been experimenting for 37 years to try to release birds into the wild.

”I have never had birds survive past the next breeding season,” he said. “They all get killed off. Somehow these birds get away with it.”

Brisbin said the population needed to be “managed” -- reduced through various methods, such as sterilizing roosters, painting eggs with chemicals to keep them from hatching, trapping chickens and selling them to breeders, and perhaps limited hunting.

Asked if complete extermination was possible at this point, Brisbin said it could be accomplished, “but it would be bloody and it would be awful. Chickens flopping around dying in the streets. Kids crying about their favorite roosters. You wouldn’t want to do it.”

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Solution eludes town

Whether pro- or anti-chicken, most Fitzgerald residents agree that they have to do something about the uncontrolled poultry population. People just can’t agree on what to do.

Chicken supporters say the birds are too special to just eradicate. Alesia Biggers, the city’s tourism director, said that when out-of-towners come to her office, “the first thing they want to see is the chickens.”

Dubois White, 73, an exterminator in town, said he wanted the birds to be protected because they make Fitzgerald distinct. “They can be a nuisance, but I enjoy watching them fly and feed,” he said. He added, however, “Where I enjoy them, a lot of people don’t.”

He said he’d had several serious inquiries about exterminating chickens in people’s yards. He politely declined the business.

Joyce Motes, 49, said she knew one man who had become an anti-chicken vigilante. Armed with a BB gun, he drives through the neighborhood summarily executing wayward fowl in yards and streets. “Problem is, he just leaves them where they dropped,” she said.

She also said she knew one man who claimed to have caught one and cooked it. After eight hours on the stove, the meat still was too tough to eat.

Tara Reed, 21, who has two young children, wants the birds shipped out or killed off. She recently called police when one of her cousins was spurred by a rooster. Police told her she could not legally harm the birds unless they were on her property.”

I said, ‘If you arrest me, I’ll be going to jail with some fried chicken,’ " she said.