South Georgia Town Is Building World's Largest Topiary In Honor Of Its Wild Birds
Friday would have been the first day of the Wild Chicken Festival in the South Georgia town of Fitzgerald.
The event was canceled due to fears about the spread of the coronavirus.
But how did a flock of birds from India make their home in Fitzgerald? That story spans more than 50 years, winds through a failed government program and ends with what will become the world’s largest topiary.
Jan Gelders is the person to talk to if you want to know anything about the free-ranging birds in Fitzgerald.
She seems to know everything about them, and she’s pretty much talked to everyone about them from Audubon to National Geographic.
She grew up in Fitzgerald, but left town when she was 16. When she came back in the '80s, the chickens had appeared, she said.
“I just happened to notice that there were some chicken running loose in town, and like everybody else thinks maybe they got out of a chicken pen," she said. "I kept looking at these chickens and asking around. They weren't like your ordinary chickens."
From India To Fitzgerald
So where did the chickens come from?
In the 1950s, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife sent out an ecologist named Gardener Bump to track down the next big game bird for American hunters. He traveled around the world and ended up finding the Burmese Jungle Fowl in India.
He sent some to be raised in Georgia.
None of the birds Bump tried to introduce survived, including the jungle fowl, and the program was shut down.
But a few people from Fitzgerald grabbed Jungle Fowl eggs from the local hatchery and let their chickens raise them.
The jungle fowl had found a new home and have stuck around for half a century.
Fitzgerald's "Big Chicken"
The fact that the birds have become synonymous with the town is something Mayor Jim Puckett is banking on with his big new plan, a 62-foot-tall topiary in the shape of a chicken.
He was inspired by 56-foot-tall "Big Chicken" at a Marietta Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. The topiary was going just slightly taller until he learned that the world's largest topiary, a Mickey Mouse in Dubai, was 60 feet.
Those 2 extra feet will get the town a world record. It’ll also have an AirBnB inside.
Fitzgerald’s “Big Chicken” isn’t quite finished yet.
Puckett said some may seem him as crazy, the project has already seen the results he’s hoping for
“We've gotten phone calls from people all across the world saying, mayor, ‘I've got my credit card in my hand. I'm ready to stay in that chicken.’”
Even Gov. Brian Kemp was into it when Puckett ran into him recently.
“He said, ‘How’s that big bird coming?’ If that’s going to be my legacy, it’s doing what I need it to do which is garner interest for the city of Fitzgerald.”
'Only Indigenous To Us'
Gelders said the topiary is great, but more still needs to be done to keep the birds safe.
“I've always wanted passionately that the city would adopt the bird as our own wild bird because that would signify that it's protected.”
The Burmese jungle fowl aren’t just a regular bird. Scientists have found they’re the common ancestor of the billions of chickens on the planet today.
There’s less and less of them in India, so to researchers like Liehr Brisbin, it’s important that the birds in Fitzgerald, descended from pure Burmese jungle fowl, stay out of harm’s way.
“I hope to spruce up with an understanding of the genetic importance of the chicken as the most important source of meat protein for human consumption in the world [and] that the genes that started all that are some of the genes are in the Fitzgerald birds.”
For Gelders, her connection to the birds is more personal.
"It's only indigenous to us and it's made itself indigenous to Fitzgerald, so it deserves to be protected," she said.
That’s why Gelders said she’d like to see a city law to safeguard the Fitzgerald birds.