Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

February 2015

Vol. 43, No. 1

The Life and Death of the Heath Hen

Matthew Kamm


An archival photograph of a living Heath Hen from the Vineyard Gazette. Source: Vineyard Gazette.

The hundredth anniversary in 2014 of the death of the last Passenger Pigeon marked a banner year for the discussion of extinct species of yore and what we might learn from their sad tales. One tale in particular should resonate with Massachusetts birders: that of the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), a bird that lived in the Bay State and nowhere else in the world for the last sixty-odd years of its existence. How did the Heath Hens live, why did they die out, and what can we learn from them?

Heath Hens are (or were) the type subspecies of pinnated grouse, better known to modern birders as the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido). Like their extant western cousins, Heath Hens were robust birds with a remarkable courtship display. Males would gather in open fields to impress females by strutting, clucking, cackling, and making their unique tooting call, a sound that was amplified by the inflation of esophageal air sacs on either side of the male’s neck. The Heath Hen’s historic range is debated in the literature. Audubon in his Birds of America (1835) claimed that they were distributed as far north as Maine, on Mount Desert Island as well as around Mars Hill. Edward Howe Forbush (1912) and Alfred O. Gross (1928) disputed this claim, believing that these Maine reports originated from use of the common name “Heath Hen” to refer to Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis). General consensus holds that the bird bred from Massachusetts south to Virginia, with particular concentrations on Long Island and in certain areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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