Wild Chicken Festival at a glance
What: Annual Fitzgerald festival with the city’s wild Burmese chicken population as the theme.
When: March 19-20
Where: Fitzgerald downtown historic district.
Highlights: Food vendors, arts and crafts, concerts, rock wall, juggling, face painting, pine wood derby race, pancake breakfast, wing-eating contest, chicken crowing contest, 5K, clowns, spirit riders poker run, classic car show and a Fitzgerald Gymnastics Academy demonstration.
Admission: The festival is free. Some activities cost.Details: 1-800-386-4642, www.wildchickenfestival.com
FITZGERALD — Fitzgerald can crow over its Wild Chicken Festival. The annual celebration, set for March 19-20, has been going strong for 10 years after organizers converted the former rattlesnake roundup to focus on the town’s wild Burmese chicken population.
Barry Peavey, who co-chairs the festival with Ricky Haggard, calls the 2001 switch "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.
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 include the Kiwanis wild chicken 5K sprint, a Miss Wild Chicken pageant, a wing-eating showdown and a chicken soup art contest. Crafts, food and concerts will also grace the historic downtown district, rich in blooming azaleas and, of course, wild chickens. Admission is free, although there are fees for some activities.
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.
The Wild Chicken Festival, which is hosted by the Fitzgerald Jaycees, also includes a "love ’em or hate ’em" poll on the chickens, which, according to www.wildchickenfestival.com, 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."