Tag Archives: South Georgia Birds

The Wild Chickens of Fitzgerald

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.

 

 

 

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Filed under --BEN HILL COUNTY GA--, Fitzgerald GA

Wild Turkey Mount, Edison

This was located in an antique store window in downtown Edison.

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Filed under --CALHOUN COUNTY GA--, Edison GA

Wilson’s Snipe, Ben Hill County

Folklore suggests that a snipe hunt is a fool’s errand. But snipe are real birds, if rarely encountered.  The term sniper comes from the difficulty hunters of this bird face. It’s well-camouflaged and flies in such an irregular pattern that a clean shot is nearly impossible. I was very lucky to see this Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) on Thanksgiving morning.

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And in a flash, he was gone.

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Sandhill Crane, Crisp County

Sandhill Crane Grus candensis During Migration in Crisp County GA Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2015

Among North America’s largest birds, Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) are quite familiar during their annual migrations from the northern reaches of the continent to the southern United States and Mexico. They’re known for their loud calls and their habit of gathering in large numbers. I encountered around a thousand individuals yesterday feeding in freshly plowed fields saturated with recent rains.

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Filed under --CRISP COUNTY GA--, Raines GA

Swallow-tailed Kites, Long County

Swallow tailed Kite in flight Long County Ga nesting grounds photograph copyright brian brown vanishing south georgia usa 2014

One of the most beautiful raptors in North America, Swall0w-tailed Kites (Elanoides forficatus) are a South American species which breeds in scattered locations around the South in spring. By late August they begin their long migration to South America and it’s during this time that large numbers of them, along with Mississippi Kites (Ictinia mississippiensis), can be observed in large numbers in Long County. Bird watchers descend at a remote farm near the Altamaha River in growing numbers each year to see this phenomenon.

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Purple Martins, Irwin County

Puple Martins Progne subis at Gourd Tree In Flight Irwin County GA Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2014

Purple Martins (Progne subis) are a well loved migrant in South Georgia. The largest swallows in North America, they have long been welcome on farms for their ability to consume thousands of insects. Gourd trees are often erected on farms and in open backyards as a means of attracting the gregarious birds, who live and nest in cavities. I found these as I was photographing the Willcox house.

Puple Martins Progne subis at Gourd Tree rwin County GA Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2014

The Purple Martin Conservation Association is dedicated to promoting and protecting these wonderful birds.

Gourd Tree and Purple Martins Irwin County GA Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2014

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Pine Warbler, Ben Hill County

Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus in Pecan Tree Photograph Copyright Brian Brown Vanishing South Georgia USA 2014

A year-round resident here in the South, the Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus) is much more noticeable in winter when their beautiful yellow feathers really stand out. Though associated with pine trees, they can be found in nearly every back yard and pecan orchard, as well.

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Wild Turkeys Foraging, Ben Hill County

eastern-wild-turkey-ben-hill-county-ga-photograph-copyright-brian-brown-vanishing-south-georgia-usa-2013

Once threatened with extinction, the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) has made a huge comeback and is a common sight on dirt roads and in back woods all over South Georgia. It sustained our ancestors as a game bird and remains an integral symbol of the Southern forest.

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Gourd Tree, Irwin County

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These are generally put up to attract Purple Martins (Progne subis), which are thought to be a mosquito deterrent. Many companies now sell plastic martin gourds, but I prefer the natural versions.

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Filed under --IRWIN COUNTY GA--