I asked a friend recently, and he responded that clearly the egg came first, since reptiles existed before chickens and also lay eggs. Alas, the age-old question has a logical answer! I recently learned about Fitzgerald GA’s claim to fame—wild chickens and the wild chicken festival. This week, I thought I’d share a bit of information about the domestication of poultry, which is Georgia’s #1 agricultural enterprise in terms of economic impact.

            Domestication of the modern chicken (Gallus domesticus) from wild red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) also known as Burmese chickens occurred an estimated 7,000-10,000 years ago in Southeast Asia. Red junglefowl are a tropical bird which lives in a broad stretch of area in Asia, including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, southern China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. They typically have a wide mix of feather colors including orange, brown, red, gold, and green, which are particularly vibrant on the males. The birds are fairly small, weighing in at around 2-3 pounds, but roosters can appear larger due to the length of their tail feathers. The red junglefowl prefers natural disrupted habitats that have thick cover, such as deforested areas, regrowth from slash-and-burn cultivation, and can also be found in farming and plantation operations. Red junglefowl exhibit many behaviors seen in modern chickens including dust bathing, roosting, territorial, and reproductive behaviors. They eat a broad diet just like chickens including insects, fruits, seeds, and plants.

            The modern chicken has been tied to red junglefowl via DNA sequencing, though over the years there have bene contributions from grey, green, and Sri Lankan junglefowl into modern chicken genetics. It is believed that these poultry were domesticated primarily for the sport of Cockfighting, with secondary benefits being the production of meat and eggs. A few other factors influenced livestock domestication – what the species ate and whether it competed for human food resources; animal size and ability to consume or preserve meat products before they went bad; and reproductive efficiency (how many offspring the animal had and how quickly). Over time, selective breeding of chickens has led to the modern bird, of which we have breeds for egg production, breeds for meat production, or dual purpose (both eggs and meat).

            This whole article is a result of John Stone (yes, again) bringing up the Fitzgerald Wild Chickens. In the 1960’s the Georgia Department of Natural Resources actually stocked red junglefowl (or Burmese chickens) as a game bird for hunting, similarly to how they stock quail or pheasant. In Fitzgerald, an estimated 2,000 stocked birds were released, and the region had just the right combination of resources for them to thrive. The Fitzgerald chickens look much like their historic ancestors, with bright plumage and small sizes, and it’s not uncommon to encounter groups of them as you explore the town. As you can expect, residents are mixed on how they feel about the birds, but ultimately, they are there to stay, with an estimated 5,000 birds populating Fitzgerald. Each March, the celebratory Wild Chicken Festival is held, and recently a 62 ft tall steel chicken sculpture was erected in recognition of this unique claim to fame.

            If you have questions about poultry or chickens, or have a unique story you’d like to see in the paper, let me know at uge3181@uga.edu or 706-359-3233.

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