Extinct Animals The Health Hen

About the now extinct animal species the Heath Hen, history, physical description, location and how the species died out.


The Health Hen

Physical Description: These plump, 18.-in.-long game birds were light brown with black barring. They had a distinctive tuft of about 10 long pointed feathers on each side of their neck. The male had two orange air sacs on its throat, which it inflated with air during mating season and forcefully emptied to produce a booming call.

Where and How They Lived: The heath hen's original range was the northeast coast of the U.S., from Maine to the Carolinas. It was generally found in the vicinity of oak trees, where its diet consisted of acorns and berries. An occasional foray might be made into an open field to search for tidbits of grain and clover. The hen's nest, an informal arrangement of leaves and grass placed over a hollow in the ground, was usually located at the base of a large stump in the woods. There the female would lay a dozen or more buff-colored eggs.

How and When Destroyed: The timid, defenseless heath hen was doomed from the minute the hungry Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower. The birds were not too intelligent. Hunters needed only to spread ashes on a flock's customary resting ground and wait for the birds to land, beating their wings and raising enough dust to blind themselves in the process. Saving their guns for wilier prey, several men with sticks could finish off the health hens. For those wastrels who did hunt with rifles, the birds cooperated by rising out of a field one or two at a time and flying off in a straight line. The heath hens weren't alone in their stupidity, however; for while hunters found that the nesting females made easy marks, they apparently never realized that each dead mother meant 8 to 12 fewer birds to fire at the following year.

During colonial times, the heath hen had been found in such abundance that "servants stipulated with their employers not to have Heath Hen brought to the table oftener than a few times a week." By 1791, however, the New York legislature considered "an Act for the preservation of the heath hen and other game," and by 1880 the bird had vanished from even the most remote woods on the mainland, and only 200 heath hens could be found on the island of Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. A forest fire destroyed much of the hens' breeding ground in 1907, reducing their number to 77. The public responded to an appeal for funds, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts set up a 1,600-acre reserve and hired a warden to stop hunting by both humans and animals. He conscientiously performed his duties, and a count of 2,000 hens in April, 1916, was cause for celebration, but a fire blazed across the breeding grounds a month later. The females refused to leave their nests, even when threatened by flames, so most of the 105 survivors were males. A bone-chilling winter was followed by an invasion of hawks, and the 1917 census of heath hens showed that the total number had dipped below 100. The industrious warden swung into action again, and in 1920 the birds' population hit 600. Then something went wrong. The 1927 count was below 30, and the confused warden started tinkering with every variable that could possibly affect the birds' well-being until it was discovered that most of the males were sterile, and soon the females were similarly afflicted. One male survived until 1932, and he was last seen on Mar. 11. The heath hen colony on Martha's Vineyard had been too small and vulnerable to pull through, even with last-minute assistance from humans.

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