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Saturday, August 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Wild chickens have the whole town clucking

By Ellen Barry
Los Angeles Times

Wild chickens forage in Fitzgerald, Ga. They are thought to be descendants of jungle fowl that escaped during a wildlife experiment.
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FITZGERALD, Ga. — At the end of the day in Fitzgerald, when shop owners hang up "closed" signs and the fierce heat fades, chickens come out of the shadows. They hop across Main Street. They 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 town's streets, the unintended result of an experiment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People learned to accommodate and even appreciate them: Traffic stops while rows of fluffy chicks cross to safety and hop up on the curb. "Love Dem Wild Chickens," reads a bumper sticker.

But residents have split this summer. 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, scratching and defecating. They describe how a chicken — the breed can fly whole city blocks — hurtled through a plate-glass window in the office of a prominent attorney.

Fed-up homeowners have petitioned city and state officials for humane ways to reduce the population, No one intended to settle hundreds — some say thousands — of wild chickens around the front porches and palm trees of this south Georgia city, population 8,700.

A government biologist named Gardiner Bump in the late 1960s asked to use a nearby fish hatchery to introduce an exotic bird to the Georgia forest — one that 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 had considered them prime hunting birds. When flushed, they "blasted into the air with a flurry of wings," said I. Lehr Brisbin Jr., a professor of biology at the University of Georgia who is an authority on the bird.

The experiment, 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.

Not all the birds died — that much is clear.
Parrish offers a commonly accepted explanation: A well-connected Fitzgerald man — whose name has remained a secret — persuaded the hatchery superintendent to give him a few jungle-fowl eggs, which he slipped under a bantam hen. The chicks bonded with their adoptive mother and went on to breed with bantams, and were allowed to roam free, Parrish said.

Descendants settled on the west side, among the stately houses of the city's leading families. They wake before dawn and spend the day hopping from one yard to another, scratching for bugs. They have little apparent fear of humans or other animals.

"You know, cats are kind of scared of them," said Mayor Gerald Thompson, 69.

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 it to be a few hundred.

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

"A couple 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 flock may well be unique, he said; without medical care, it apparently has overcome diseases and parasites that kill off free-ranging chickens everywhere. Safe from predators, the birds are flourishing in something close to a pure chicken society.

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

But the citizens seem to be looking for a more direct plan.

Some have taken matters into their hands, despite laws against using firearms and laying out poison within the city limits. An item on last week's police blotter, printed in the local paper, reads simply, "Someone shoots wild chickens, 100-block Savannah Street, July 21, 9:23 p.m."

"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 BBs. 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. Burgess, 41, soon found herself devoting nearly an hour every day to replacing landscaping mulch the chickens had disrupted while she was at work. The crowing jerked her out of sleep at 3 and 4 a.m.

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, but the push prompted a wave of support for the chickens. Gelders and her supporters collected 1,300 signatures in support of protecting the bird.

A City Council meeting on the issue last month drew 80 people, evenly divided, said Tim Anderson, editor of the local Herald-Leader. As far as Anderson knows, it was the largest attendance at a council meeting in the history of the city.

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. In 36 years as mayor, he has avoided taking a public position on an issue that emerges and then recedes every few years.

Some constituents 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."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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