FITZGERALD, Ga. -- Dozens of wild jungle fowl -- survivors of a wildlife experiment that went awry -- roam the yards and alleys of Fitzgerald, scratching the dirt and pecking for seeds and insects.
Their quest for food damages vegetable gardens and flower beds. They crow loudly, long before most alarm clocks go off. And if disturbed while roosting in trees at night, they voice their displeasure with earsplitting squawks.
Is it any wonder that some of Fitzgerald's 9,400 residents get their hackles up over the colorful Asian birds that have multiplied in their south Georgia town?
"A lot of wild creatures are beautiful, which includes the wild chickens of Fitzgerald," said Foster Goolsby. "I would love them, if they would stay in someone else's yard. But they think they own the place."
Betty Griffin said she's fed up with the noise.
"They crow all night long," she said. "I'm at an age where I like peace and quiet. I have gotten up at 2 a.m. and tried to shoot one."
Jungle fowl were imported from north-central India in the 1960s by wildlife officials who attempted to establish them as game birds in Georgia and other Southeastern states. The experiment failed because many of the birds gravitated to barnyards, where they mated with chickens and lost their wild traits.
To the casual observer, Fitzgerald's jungle fowl look like chickens. They travel in family groups: a knee-high rooster that may be red-orange to black, followed by a slightly smaller brown hen and five or six brown or black chicks.
But they don't act like domesticated chickens. They scamper away from humans and can fly 50 to 60 feet to the tops of trees if threatened.
Nicholas Collias, a retired zoology professor from Van Nuys, Calif., who studied jungle fowl in India, said it's "quite special" to have them living in an American town.
Jungle fowl date back thousands of years "into the mists of time" and are forerunners of domestic chickens, said Collias, who taught zoology at UCLA.
Residents of Fitzgerald, which was founded 102 years ago as a home for weary Civil War veterans, are split over what to do about the birds. Opponents want them trapped and banished to areas outside the city limits. Supporters have formed a preservation group and want them protected.
"We're trying to preserve a very unusual species," said Jan Gelders, the preservation group's spokeswoman. "Unfortunately, these wild jungle fowl resemble in some respects just a chicken, and that's what they are labeled as by some people.
"This is a descendant of a wild species that dates back to 700 B.C.," she said. "It has re-established itself in this town and has retained almost all of its natural traits."
For several years, city workers have trapped and removed birds from the yards of residents who complained. That was stopped last month after the preservation group began circulating a petition.
Preservationists say they birds should not be trapped during the nine-month breeding and nesting season. They also want the city to declare the birds a protected species.
Mayor Gerald Thompson said the City Council is committed to working with the preservation group but can't ignore the complaints of bird opponents. The city may offer the preservationists a chance to handle homeowner complaints and relocate problem birds themselves, he said.
"We're not going to do any wholesale moving of the birds," he said. "It would take somebody with more expertise than we have."
David Malcolm, a retired teacher and naturalist and an organizer of the preservation group, said he thinks the dispute can be resolved.
"The majority of people ... are in favor of the birds, but you have to look at the minority's concerns too," Malcolm said. "If we have nuisance birds, they can be removed and released in areas where they are welcome and would survive."