My hometown has long promoted itself as the Colony City, for its settlement by Union veterans in 1895 [Confederates came soon after]. In recent years, this focus has shifted to the wild Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) which roam the city. Everyone in Fitzgerald just calls them wild chickens and I’ve seen and heard them all my life. For years they weren’t really on anyone’s radar, unless they were doing battle with the fowl for control of their flower beds.
The Red Junglefowl, native to the Indian subcontinent and found throughout South Asia, has been determined through genetic studies to be the progenitor of all domesticated chickens and thus is the most economically and culturally important bird in the world.
When I was a teenager, my good friend Milton “Buddy” Hopkins told me how they came to be here. Buddy was a farmer and a sportsman, but as an ornithologist he wasn’t in favor of the chickens’ local presence, understanding the havoc wrought by introduced species on native populations. He followed their progress in the wild quite closely nonetheless.
The story really begins with the efforts of Gardiner Bump, a New York State Game Commissioner, who traveled to Asia in 1948 to research potential “replacements” for much of the wild fowl which had been depleted from American forests in the first half of the 20th century. Bump convinced the U. S. government that they could repopulate the forests with foreign species and the species he settled on was the Red Junglefowl. By the early 1960s, Bump’s efforts seemed to be paying off and over 10,000 Red Junglefowl were released into Southern forests, including over 2000 at the Bowens Mill Fish Hatchery north of Fitzgerald.
Nearly all of those birds vanished, likely victims of predators or disease. And by the end of the decade, the prevailing view among American biologists and game managers had shifted to a more integrated management program that focused on restoring old habitats and encouraging the re-introduction of native species. In 1970, the remaining birds in the program were ordered to be terminated, but somehow, a small population from Bowens Mill made their way to Fitzgerald, about ten miles distant. Against the odds, they not only survived but thrived.
As I stated earlier, the chickens weren’t generally given much thought by the people of Fitzgerald unless they were scratching up their flower beds or waking them up with their ritual crowing. They certainly weren’t seen as a symbol of the town. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, growing disdain by many led to occasional editorials in the local paper, the Herald-Leader. My good friend Foster Goolsby saw himself as a defender of lawns and order and was the author of the most memorable of those editorials. The chickens had a particular affinity for his wife Frances’s flower beds, so you can imagine his urgency. Foster was a pilot in World War II and a longtime principal and headmaster.
By the early 2000s, anti-chicken fervor had reached its zenith and there was talk of attempting to exterminate the birds. At this point, Jan Gelders took on the role of defender of the chickens. Jan had earlier established the local Humane Society and as an advocate for animal rights felt the chickens should be left alone. Cool heads prevailed and after much debate the chickens were allowed to live. It doesn’t mean they’re universally adored, but for the most part, people have just learned to tolerate them.
Estimates vary wildly as to how many of the Red Junglefowl populate the streets and alleys of Fitzgerald today, but the low estimates I’ve seen have been around 5000 birds. The Jaycess host an annual Wild Chicken Festival and a recent government project is taking the the unofficial avian mascot to new heights.
At 62 feet, Fitzgerald’s Chicken Topiary [pictured above], created by Joe Kyte of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, will be the world’s tallest upon completion and is so large it will include a rentable room for overnight stays. I won’t wade into controversy here, except to say the town is about as divided about the use of funds for building a 62-foot chicken as it is about the chickens themselves.