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The Extinct Heath Hen
When I was doing some research on extinct animals, I was surprised and saddened to learn about the plight of the Heath Hen. At roughly 17 inches tall and weighing around two pounds, the small bird was found in abundance during colonial times in the New England area, but extensive hunting for food brought about a drastic fall in their numbers. The last male Heath Hen died in 1932, thus sadly bringing an end to the species.
An artist's rendering of the now extinct Heath Hen.
Image courtesy minniesland.com
The Heath Hen's Demise
Due to intense hunting pressure, the population declined rapidly. By 1870, all Heath Hens were wiped out on the mainland. There were about 300 left on the island of Martha's Vineyard, off Massachusetts, but by 1890 this number had declined to 120-200 birds, mainly due to predation by feral cats and poaching. By the late 1800s, there were about 70 left.
These were protected by a hunting ban and the 1908 establishment of the "Heath Hen Reserve" and the population rapidly grew to almost 2000; by the mid-1910s, observing the birds on their lekking grounds had become something of a tourist attraction. However, a destructive fire during the 1916 nesting season, severe winters, an unusual influx of predatory goshawks, inbreeding, an excess number of male individuals and apparently an epidemic of blackhead disease which might have been transmitted by poultry brought the numbers down quickly; after a last recovery to 600 in 1920, the population began its final decline.
In 1927, only about a dozen were left - a mere two being females - despite being afforded the best protection according to contemporary science, and that number had declined to a handful, all males, by the end of the year. After December 8, 1928, apparently only one male survived, nicknamed "Booming Ben". He was last seen on his traditional lekking ground between West Tisbury and today's Martha's Vineyard Airport on March 11, 1932 - early in the breeding season -, and thus presumably died, about 8 years old, days or only hours afterwards from unknown causes.
Heath Hens were one of the first bird species that Americans tried to save from extinction. As early as 1791, a bill "for the preservation of heath-hen and other game" was introduced in the New York legislature. Although the effort to save the Heath Hen from extinction was ultimately unsuccessful, it paved the way for conservation of other species. Ironically, the establishment of the reserve on the open shrubland of what was then called the Great Plain may have accelerated the Heath Hen's extinction. Fires were a normal part of the environment, but with the attempt to suppress fires instead of enforcing ecological succession with controlled burns, habitat quality decreased and undergrowth accumulated until a normally limited fire would have disastrous consequences as it did in 1916. Lack of awareness of the region's historical fire ecology also led the state legislature to require firebreaks when protecting the hen.
Realizing the degradation that has affected the State Forest (and although it does hold remarkable biodiversity, prevents it from being utilized to its full potential), reestablishment of the original shrubland/heath/woods mosaic and eventual reintroduction of Greater Prairie-Chickens as an "umbrella species" that serves as an indicator of good habitat quality has been discussed since the late 1990s.