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About the Book:
         Author's Comments

As the author of a definitive biography on 20th century naturalist and children’s author, Thornton W. Burgess, I was moved to tears in reading his account of watching the last heath hen on Martha’s Vineyard, Booming Ben as the Vineyarders named him, emerge alone from scrub brush onto his species’ mating grounds in the final years of the 1920s. This was the sole bird of its kind, without a mate or even a companion to answer his questioning calls.


Burgess was a master storyteller, but the story of the last heath hen needed no imaginative touches because Burgess was an eye-witness to the tragic scene. In researching the survey work conducted by biologist Dr. Alfred Gross of Bowdoin College and his invitation to Burgess to join him on the Vineyard, I was powerfully struck by the realization that once the last heath hen, a male, was captured, his fate was entirely in the hands of those two men who banded and briefly held the bird: They could kill him and have the body preserved by taxidermy for future generations to see. They could send him to a zoo to live out his remaining days in captivity. Or they could release him.


That they chose the bird’s freedom will be a relief to readers as it was to me, but that this was Gross and Burgess’ decision alone to make was astonishing. I asked Mark Madison, senior historian of U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife, was this possible? Yes, he said, in that day, it was. 


The story is important for a number of reasons. According to Madison, this is the only known instance of documentation in the wild of the last North American bird of its kind. Children are familiar with the threat of extinction, from movies of fearsome dinosaurs to TV ads seeking financial support for endangered tigers. The Last Heath Hen is a true story about a bird with extraordinary behaviors that vanished on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Efforts to save it are considered among the first species conservation projects worldwide. [END?]


This book documents the lengthy and concerted effort to save the heath hen made by organizations, institutions, and individuals responsible for conservation. Why did they fail? Let children digest and understand how complicated conservation is: even on this small scale, with a small bird on a small island, the best efforts failed.


“Children learn soon enough the hardship of life,” author Thornton Burgess told critics who chastised him for consistently writing stories in which predators like Reddy Fox never caught prey like Peter Rabbit. When I was pondering how I could possibly bring this subject of unmitigated loss to a child without causing despair, the book’s final message came to me: we make the effort because life, all life, in its grand and glorious diversity matters. It will always matter.


                                                                                                    - Christie Palmer Lowrance


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