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Chicken Run: Red Junglefowl in Fitzgerald, GA

Red Junglefowl in Fitzpatrick, Georgia have been added to the official ABA checklist. They now count as life birds in the ABA area.

I got the news from Mark McShane via the Georgia Bird Alert (GABO) listserv: the ABA checklist committee had added Red Junglefowl in the town of Fitzgerald, Georgia to the ABA list. The chickens in this town were now potential life birds.

For most birders, the problem with this announcement is that Fitzgerald is in the middle of nowhere. Not quite a Nevada or Montana-level middle of nowhere, but far from any other likely birding, business, or vacation destinations. Fitzgerald is a 2.5 hour drive from Atlanta (Hartsfield) Airport, and it is only a little closer to Savannah, Jacksonville, or Tallahassee. Fortunately for me, I live in east Alabama and I was planning a birding trip to the Georgia coast just as the news of the countable chickens came in. Fitzgerald was only 20 minutes out of my way on the drive to Saint Simon’s Island.

How did a barnyard bird still dwelling in an urban environment come to be recognized as an established wild bird by the American Birding Association (ABA)? The backstory is fascinating. These are not escaped domestic birds. The birds roaming Fitzgerald are descendants of wild Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) captured in forests in Burma in 1960 and transported to the southeastern United States to be introduced as a new game bird. In the early 1960s, about 10,000 Red Junglefowl were propagated from approximately 100 wild birds brought to the U.S., and these wild-derived Red Junglefowl were released into the countryside of southeastern states, including about 2000 birds near Fitzgerald, Georgia. A nice account of this bit of Wildlife Biology history can be read here:

A large population of wild Red Junglefowl roam the neighborhoods of the small south Georgia town of Fitzgerald.

The released Red Junglefowl did not become established in natural Georgia habitats, but a population of phenotypically pure Red Junglefowl descended from the introduced birds became established by the 1970s in Fitzgerald. Those birds have now been breeding in the backyards and vacant lots of Fitzgerald for 50 years, and the ABA correctly identified this populations as a fully established introduced wild bird. If you see a Red Junglefowl in Fitzgerald, it counts on your ABA (life) list just like House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, or Himalayan Snowcock count in areas where they have been established.

I decided to stop at Fitzgerald on my way back from the Georgia coast instead of in the afternoon on my way out, so I could be in the junglefowl area at sunrise. In my experience--and as I was taught as a preschooler watching cartoons--roosters make a lot of noise at sunrise. Fitzgerald did not disappoint.

I approached Fitzgerald from the east with my windows down about 20 minutes before sunrise. About 8 blocks from the town center, I heard my first cock-a-doodle-do. Then another. Then another. I turn north down a side street and roosters were crowing in all directions. It was still too dark to see well so I just drove slowly around and tried to get a sense of how many birds were crowing. It was a lot of birds--dozens. As the day brightened, Red Junglefowl became easy to see. I had read some reports on eBird that at midday is can take a bit of searching to see a Red Junglefowl in Fitzgerald. That is not true at dawn in November. I hate to say you could not possibly miss these birds, because I’ve been told that for birds that I missed. But in this case—you cannot possibly miss Red Junglefowl in Fitzgerald, Georgia at daybreak. Red Junglefowl were along almost every street and very often standing in the middle of the street. There were both roosters and hens (but no young birds so maybe no fall breeding). They typically ran from my car as I approached, but they usually went only a couple of tens of feet before stopping in full view. You could also just park in the path of an approaching bird and it would walk right up.

During my visit in November, the density of birds was highest in the neighborhoods north of downtown.

I spent my first 40 minutes cruising east to west about 5 blocks north of downtown. I think Red Junglefow are densest in this area, based on my brief experience in the town. I put 38 Red Junglefowl on my eBird checklist for this northern part of town, but that was a conservative estimate of numbers. Between birds heard and seen, I could easily have detected 70 chickens. I then passed through downtown and drove around the neighborhoods in the south part of the city. Red Junglefowl were only about half as dense in the southern suburbs, but I thought these south Fitzgerald birds let me approach closer and most of my photographs are from the south side of the city.

Fitzgerald is a small town with a population of about 8000. It has a city center that is about 4 square blocks and residential houses extending about a dozen streets out from this center. Red Junglefowl are common throughout the residential areas.

I highly recommend a trip to Fitzgerald, Georgia for any birder traveling to the region. I wasn’t sure what sort of birding experience this chicken run would be. It was a blast. These are legitimate wild birds. Almost all of the birds that I saw were phenotypically pure Red Junglefowl. The roosters have beautiful golden hackle fathers, vibrant wattles and combs, and spectacular curved and iridescent tails. All of the birds that I saw had dark gray legs. Next time you are around domestic chickens, pay attention to leg color. There is some variation among breeds, but most barnyard chickens have yellow, yellowish, or at least pale legs. Yellow and pale legs is actually a trait that was introgressed from the Gray Junglefowl. It is ubiquitous in domestic chickens. My life Red Junglefowl had dark gray legs, just like their ancestors in the forests of Burma.


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