Stalking the Wild Ur-Chicken

A small town in Georgia may hold the genetic key to the future of poultry.

Milton Hopkins was one of few people in the country qualified to identify the dead bird. He studied ornithology at the University of Georgia before returning to his family farm near the town of Fitzgerald, about a three-hour drive south from Atlanta. So when his son, Bubba, came through the door one day in the mid-1970s with a bird he’d shot in a cornfield—it had flown up like a pheasant—Hopkins recognized it immediately. Bubba thought it looked like a chicken, but “my daddy said there was no doubt. It was one of those Red Junglefowl,” he recounts. When they cooked and ate the bird it proved to be a tough old rooster. “It was real dry.”

As it turns out, Bubba’s quarry was an alien species, a descendent of birds brought from India to the United States in the 1960s as part of an unorthodox government program to restock the depleted American landscape with foreign game birds. In Georgia more than 2,000 Red Junglefowl were raised and released from a hatchery outside of Fitzgerald. The elder Hopkins, who died in 2007, always considered the scheme foolish. Bubba’s kill is, in fact, the only record of a successful junglefowl hunt in the entire state of Georgia. After that, the birds vanished from the region’s pinelands. 

A few intrepid poultry, however, found refuge in Fitzgerald. Designed in a square-mile grid by Northern Civil War veterans fleeing famine in Nebraska and Kansas, the town offered protection from most predators and a steady diet of garden insects. Today about 900 brazen chickens—one for every 10 people in town—strut down sidewalks, lay eggs on the rooftops of Victorian homes, crow at all hours, and destroy neat flowerbeds as they forage in the pine-straw mulch. For years the birds’ bad behavior enraged late sleepers and gardeners, who even lobbied at one point to exterminate them. But a self-appointed local protector rallied to save Fitzgerald’s fowl. In doing so, she discovered that the town’s birds may be among the last examples of what is the ur-chicken—the original progenitor of all the crazy varieties that have since taken over the world.  

Twenty billion. That’s the minimum number of chickens pecking at the earth’s surface on any given day. And every one of them is descended directly from the Red Junglefowl. Most of the domesticated birds live in vast warehouses designed to feed the world’s fast-growing urban population. In the 1970s Americans ate just an average of 40 pounds of chicken a year, and beef was king. Now chicken rules, and we consume twice that much per person each year. Other countries are following suit. Billions of people, from China to Chile, increasingly rely on the bird and its eggs to provide a cheap and nutritious source of protein and essential nutrients. No other animal is as important in our modern industrialized food chain.

But for most of human history, the chicken was far more than a fairly cheap and easily roasted foodstuff. Domesticated somewhere in South Asia more than 4,000 years ago, what began as the Red Junglefowl gradually became an essential part of religious rites, giving guidance to tribal leaders in Burma, predicting the outcome of battles in ancient Rome, and absorbing the sins of individuals. Cockfighting turned into one of the world’s most popular gambling sports, and chickens were a veritable walking medicine chest for ancient healers, who used them to treat everything from burns to bedwetting. The rooster provides a symbol of loyalty and ferocity—it is one of the oldest emblems of the U.S. Democratic Party and the longtime mascot of France. Cockerel weathervanes on churches are reminders that the chicken awakens us from spiritual as well as physical sleep. Only in the past century has it become a vital ingredient in our day-to-day diet, a byword for stupidity and cowardice, or the butt of a bad joke.

Despite our tight bond with the chicken, the wild Red Junglefowl remains surprisingly mysterious. It is notoriously shy and difficult to observe, hunt, or capture in its native habitat; just handling one can prompt its heart to fail. Unfortunately, as human populations have exploded in South Asia, so have barnyard chickens, leading to hybridization. The result is that the common chicken’s relentless spread is quietly driving its ancestor to genetic extinction.

Our best glimpse into the nature of the unalloyed wild chicken therefore comes from historical accounts. “An untamable leopard; low-hung tail, slightly bent legs; head low, always intent, listening, watching; almost never motionless,” is how a 34-year-old biologist named William Beebe described a Red Junglefowl that he watched one chilly dawn in a damp upland forest in Burma. The year was 1911, and Beebe was on the path to becoming one of the world’s most renowned wildlife biologists. Peering through his binoculars, the explorer watched transfixed as the rising sun pierced the woods, striking the bird. “Just for a moment he was agleam, the sun reflecting metallic red, green, and purple from his plumage.”

Beebe was struck by the fact that this avian recluse morphed into the almost infinitely varied examples found across the world. The fowl’s unusual plasticity, he theorized, let humans mold it into the “beautiful, bizarre, or monstrous races” of the domesticated chicken. Plumage could be lengthened or shortened, colors and their patterns quickly altered, and the size of limbs extended or reduced. While the wild bird has a tail less than 12 inches long, for example, a domesticated Japanese breed boasts colorful hind feathers that can trail 20 feet. A rooster’s comb alone can take more than two dozen distinct forms. Males can be altered to become fierce cockfighters with fewer feathers for an opponent to grasp. With similar genetic tinkering, the two-pound Red Junglefowl became the brawny Jersey Giant, which can top 13 pounds. The wild junglefowl that lays only about a half-dozen eggs in an entire year was tweaked into a White Leghorn capable of filling a carton in less than two weeks.            

There are three other species of wild junglefowl—Grey, Green, and Sri Lanka—and Beebe closely observed them as well. All have similar traits, but they live in very restricted geographical areas. By contrast, their red cousin thrives from 5,000 feet in the Himalayas to the steamy tropical marshes of Sumatra. This adaptability to varied habitats may explain why the chicken can be so quickly altered to suit human desires. But scientists still don’t know how, when, or where the wild creature took its first step toward becoming a barnyard staple. Not even the publication of the chicken genome a decade ago offered much insight. And because chicken bones degrade quickly, archaeologists have had a difficult time discerning when its ancestor entered the human orbit. What scientists need is a reliably pure Red Junglefowl to tease out the minute genetic differences that make one bird wild and the other not. 

That genetically pure wild ancestor may still exist thanks to a biologist named Gardiner Bump. Populations of game birds in the United States had crashed in the early 1900s because of overhunting, habitat destruction, and the fashion of putting feathers on ladies’ hats and dresses. The Depression further depleted game, as more people hunted to put food on the table. When millions of veterans returned from World War II, they took to the woods with high-powered rifles, and the situation became calamitous. Which was why Bump managed to convince the U.S. government in 1948 to send him overseas to find foreign game birds to refill American forests.

An imposing figure with a domineering personality, Bump headed the New York game commission and had written a seminal study on the Ruffed Grouse. For years he had argued forcefully that importing foreign birds would be the best solution to the nationwide game crisis. After all, China’s Common Pheasant (our Ring-necked Pheasant) was successfully transplanted to the American West and North in the late 1800s, although it failed to spread to the Southeast for reasons that remain elusive. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been formed in part to prevent the introduction of alien species like the European Starling, and agency officials were understandably reluctant to agree to start importing more species. But with no visible solution—and hordes of post-war hunters looking to vent, or at least eat—they finally acquiesced. Bump and his wife, Janet, immediately set off on a remarkable 15-year, government-funded sojourn that took them from Scandinavia to Afghanistan. Traveling by plane, train, car, donkey, and camel, they collected more than a dozen species, then shipped eggs or chicks to state game facilities, where birds were bred and released into the wild across the country. But all of them—including Turkey’s Sandgrouse, Iraq’s Black Francolin, and Sweden’s Capercaillie—perished. Frustrated with a decade of little progress, and under pressure from Southern lawmakers, Fish and Wildlife officials urged Bump to focus on a hardier bird that could handle the warm and humid climate and numerous predators in the South. In 1959 he decided to search India for a suitable candidate, and rented a house in a well-to-do suburb of New Delhi with a backyard large enough for several pens.

Old British hunters living in the city gave Bump a tip. The most beautiful, sly, and tasty bird, they told him, lived in the Himalayan foothills. Bump immediately set off and found a bird “more wary and almost as difficult to hit on the wing as the Ruffed Grouse,” as he put it in one of his few reports to Washington. Intent on capturing birds with the wild traits that so impressed Beebe, he directed that all the eggs and chicks be collected at least three miles from the nearest village, which he considered a safe remove from domesticated poultry. Eager to claim their bounties, hired trackers returned toting bags full of Red Junglefowl and their eggs. 

Even more daunting than collecting the birds was transporting them 7,000 miles west to the United States, a trip that entailed multiple plane changes and layovers. When Pan Am inaugurated direct service between New York and Delhi using Boeing’s new 707, cutting travel time in half, the Bumps invited the airline agents for a lavish dinner party, with cocktails served among the chicken pens. Impressed, or perhaps plastered, the agents agreed to help transport the birds. 

By May of 1960, 70 chicks reached the United States, followed by an additional 45 the next year. State game managers across the South used the imports to raise 10,000 Red Junglefowl for release. The Bumps were ecstatic; finally, they’d found the South’s own Ring-necked Pheasant. 

But the released birds vanished, just as the others had done. Bump returned home in 1963 to a chilly reception. He was out of step with the times. A careful mix of hunting limits, habitat protection, and other conservation techniques was helping native game bird populations rebound. Rachel Carson’s newly published Silent Spring was resetting the environmental agenda, and researchers criticized Bump’s methods as ecologically misguided. He traveled from state to state in a desperate and doomed effort to ensure the fowl would proliferate. However, by early 1970 the Fish and Wildlife Service could no longer justify the program, and the remaining birds at game facilities like the one outside Fitzgerald were slated for elimination.

When Bump heard the news, he picked up his phone in Washington and called a young ecologist in South Carolina named I. Lehr Brisbin. Bump pleaded with Brisbin to save any birds he could. Brisbin, now in his seventies, didn’t waste a minute, he says. “I jumped in my station wagon and headed for Fitzgerald.” Brisbin rescued a hundred junglefowl eggs from the hatchery outside of the town, and later obtained a few more from other state facilities. For the subsequent decades, a handful of amateur breeders who were taken with the skittish creatures kept generations of them alive—and apart from domesticated chickens. Today 150 to 200 of the pure descendents of Bump’s original birds remain scattered in breeding pens across the South, including a small flock that now resides at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg.

Brisbin, a short, lean man with a chortling laugh, went on to study the impact of radiation on snakes, alligators, and feral hogs around the nuclear weapons lab where he worked. He kept a coop of chickens that would scratch around in the contaminated soil. “They ate plutonium in the dirt and then crapped it out the other end,” he says. “Like little lead BBs.” He also simulated cosmic radiation levels and determined that chickens could survive the trip to Mars; he is quite sure that a flock could be established to lay eggs for astronauts once they reached the Red Planet. 

In the late 1990s Brisbin gave a talk about Red Junglefowl at a conference. Soon after, he and a colleague he had met at the meeting examined hundreds of specimens from museums around the world and found that, during the past century, the bird had lost some of its unique traits, such as its distinctive molting pattern. “The genes of the domesticated bird are slowly and inexorably swamping the wild genes of the Red Junglefowl that spawned it in the first place,” he says. “The junglefowl is quietly slipping into extinction.” 

Responding to the threat, a lab in Sweden began in 2011 to sequence the DNA taken from one of the pure descendents of Bump’s birds, kept in a south Georgia pen; the Swedes’ findings, which are expected to be published in the coming months, could prove crucial in understanding the origin of the species, and how it came to be the docile creature it is today. But preserving the genetic integrity of the wild chicken also has more immediate implications, since retaining the full complement of the Red Junglefowl’s genes may help ensure the future of a species that is both so critical to the human food supply and so vulnerable to bird flu. Indeed, Brisbin dreams of restarting the evolutionary clock entirely by reseeding South Asia with the purer strain of the Bump birds—a mission he couches in epic language. After all, as he says, “We’re dealing with the fate of the ancestor of the most important bird ever to walk the face of the earth.” 

In 2004 Brisbin again raced to Fitzgerald. In response to a litany of local complaints, the town was debating whether to eradicate its plentiful chickens. “They crow all night long,” one woman griped at a meeting convened at City Hall. “I have gotten up at 2 a.m. and tried to shoot one.” The controversy drew national attention. “It’s not a battle,” Jan Gelders told The Washington Post. “It’s gone beyond that.” Gelders, the founder of the city’s Humane Society, had enlisted Brisbin to help save Fitzgerald’s exotic residents. Brisbin assured the opponents of Fitzgerald’s fowl that these were no ordinary chickens but among the last of a rare strain, with worldwide significance. In a state where the poultry business is a multibillion-dollar industry, his message resonated. After the gathering, there was no more serious talk of slaughtering the birds. 


Today the Fitzgerald chickens remain resolutely untamable. Residents can request that unwanted birds be humanely trapped and transported to the yards of neighbors who welcome them. But the town now overwhelmingly embraces what it nearly destroyed. When enthusiasm for the city’s annual celebration—the Rattlesnake Roundup—waned, Gelders suggested replacing it with a festival for the Western Hemisphere’s only free-range wild chickens. About 15,000 people attended the most recent Wild Chicken Festival, which included a human crowing contest and, a bit perversely, a hot-wing-eating competition. A rooster named Fruit Punch performed on a tiny piano. Cars sported the bumper sticker dreamed up by Gelders’s husband: “Love Dem Wild Chickens!”

On a tractor ride billed as a Chicken Safari, earnest fifth graders shared a megaphone as they described the city’s unusual history and pointed out the birds’ favorite haunts. Each person had a town map and colored star stickers to pinpoint the location of any junglefowl sightings. Given the noise and crowds, most of the wild chickens that populate the normally quiet downtown were in hiding. Then, just before turning the corner to trundle back toward Main Street, the tractor eased past the synagogue that Gelders’s grandfather helped found a century ago. There, standing on the lawn, was a small and sleek Red Junglefowl with a magnificent long black tail. All around the building, the pine straw was a mess. 

Correction: In the print version of this story, the Ring-necked Pheasant was misnamed "Ring-tailed Pheasant."

See the accompanying slideshow, Poultry Perfection, here