Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fitzgerald Wild Chicken Festival Struts its Stuff (and Success)

Fitzgerald has reason to crow over its Wild Chicken Festival.

The annual celebration set for March 19-20 is going strong 10 years after organizers converted the former rattlesnake roundup to focus on the town’s wild Burmese chicken population.

Barry Peavey, festival co-chair with Ricky Haggard, calls the switch in 2001 “really the best move the festival made.” “It’s much more community oriented,” Peavey said.

The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources applauded the change, noting declining eastern diamondback rattlesnake populations and the illegal and destructive practice of gassing gopher tortoise burrows to collect rattlers. The division now announces the festival in partnership with the community.

Peavey has high expectations for turnout in 2010, despite a recession that has affected financial support. “Last year, we had in excess of 6,000,” he said. “This year, if there’s good weather, I’m expecting 8,000.”

Festival features vary from the Kiwanis Wild Chicken 5k Sprint to a Miss Wild Chicken Pageant, a crowing competition, wing-eating showdown and a chicken soup art contest. Crafts, food and concerts will also grace a historic downtown district rich in blooming azaleas and, of course, wild chickens. Admission is free, although there are fees for some activities.

The main draw at rattlesnake roundups, which are still held in Georgia in Claxton and Whigham, is diamondback rattlesnakes collected by snake hunters. Yet, although started by communities to remove the threat of rattlers near houses and businesses, today’s roundups include only a fraction of so-called nuisance snakes, said John Jensen, a senior wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section. Most of the rattlesnakes come from areas far away and even from “wild” lands where they pose virtually no danger to people, Jensen said.

“The roundup aspect of these festivals today is so limited in participation and interest that it could easily be replaced with captive snakes without impacting the success of the events, and without contributing to further declines of this magnificent predator and the many other species that seek shelter in gopher tortoise burrows,” he said.

Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County sport diverse wildlife and the state’s only resident population of wild Burmese chickens. The chickens were stocked across Georgia in the 1960s as a game bird for hunting. Populations dwindled and even disappeared elsewhere, but they prospered in Fitzgerald.

Switching the theme of the city’s festival has spread awareness of the ecologically important role rattlesnakes play as natural predators in Ben Hill County and surrounding areas, Jensen said. The hope is that other rattlesnake roundups will also convert to wildlife and family friendly festivals, or at least drop the roundup aspect and focus on information entertainment regarding rattlesnakes.

The Wild Chicken festival, which the Fitzgerald Jaycees play host to, always includes a Love ’em or Hate ’em poll on the chickens, which, according to, wake residents in the morning, occasionally slow traffic and possibly keep bug populations down.

Peavey said the Love ’ems always win the poll.

Festival organizers, he added, “don’t take sides.”

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