Those docile, scaredy creatures that turn into Chicken McNuggets and supermarket breast fillets have nothing on the hearty, feathered stars of Fitzgerald, Ga. The chickens run wild in tiny Fitzgerald, just north of the Florida border. They're 2 a.m.-crowing, Main Street-strutting, garden-pecking little extroverts.

The town elders once thought so much of their brazen flock -- numbering in the thousands -- that they came up with a Wild Chicken Festival. "Love Dem Wild Chickens" bumper stickers appeared. Wild chicken images went onto coffee mugs and T-shirts.

But some folks tired of finding their carefully tended yards all torn up. They got together a petition and demanded that the chickens be removed.

That got Jan Gelders riled up. She thinks Fitzgerald's chickens are something special. Well, their history certainly is. In the 1960s, a U.S. government biologist brought the chickens to the woods outside Fitzgerald. They had an exotic name -- the Burmese red junglefowl -- and the scientist hoped to breed them in the Georgia woods as the perfect quarry for hunters. But the experiment went bad; the birds fared poorly, dying off in the woods, and the plan was scrapped.

But some of those birds, the toughest and sturdiest of all, survived, Gelders said. And their bloodlines surely trace to the current wild chickens that have made Fitzgerald home. Gelders wants them protected for future biological study, but the petition fight is on the way.

"Things were blown out of proportion," she said. "It's not a battle; it's gone beyond that."

-- Manuel Roig-Franzia

Wild chickens amble down a sidewalk in Fitzgerald, where residents are divided over whether the thousands of fowl that roam the town are an asset or a nuisance.Jan Gelders is leading a campaign to protect the wild chickens in Fitzgerald, Ga., for biological study.