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Some Questions to Consider:

There are complex questions and fascinating issues that arise out of the story of the last  heath hens! Why did they end up isolated on an island in the Atlantic Ocean? How did they get there in the first place? Why did the efforts to save them fail? And perhaps most intriguing -- could the Heath Hen species be “de-extincted?” 

HOW DID HEATH HENS GET TO MARTHA’S VINEYARD? 

No one knows for sure, of course, but it is most likely that centuries ago a flock flew across Vineyard Sound from the mainland or one of the nearby Elizabeth Islands. 

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SPECIES AND A SUBSPECIES?

To a scientist, a lot! They must be very careful about their descriptions of all living and non-living things, from rocks and trees to mongooses and bacteria and heath hens. Even the smallest similarities and differences help scientists understand ancient and current growth and development of all life forms, and how they interact, thrive and survive. 

 

The Heath Hen was part of a large family of birds, the grouse family. This family includes the Greater and Lesser Prairie Chicken, the Ruffed Grouse, the Red Grouse, and others, as well as the Heath Hen. Its closest relative is the Prairie Chicken; in fact some people referred to the Heath Hen as the Eastern Prairie Chicken.  

WHO WERE THORNTON BURGESS AND DR. ALFRED GROSS?

Dr. Alfred Gross was an ornithologist, an academic expert on birds. He taught biology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and wrote over 200 scientific papers and articles. In the early 1920s, he was studying parasites that infected the Ruffed Grouse in New England. When Thornton Burgess learned that the scientist needed more bird specimens to study, he enthusiastically offered to help. 

At that time, Thornton Burgess was a popular naturalist and the author of dozens of children’s books. Radio technology had just been developed commercially. People in their homes would gather eagerly around a radio set to listen to the few programs available. In 1924 Burgess decided to introduce to his listeners a special nature program for children called the Radio Nature League. Within weeks, there were thousands of members, some as far away as England. 

Thornton Burgess believed that radios could be useful to science because they could reach so many people at once. He told his listeners to send specimens of Ruffed Grouse to Dr. Gross to study. (It was then hunting season and Ruffed Grouse were popular game birds.) That fall the scientist was amazed when he received 300 birds to examine, far more than the 40 or 50 he expected.

The two men were both interested in birds, photography, and wildlife conservation, and became lifelong best friends. Their photographs and moving films of the Heath Hens on Martha’s Vineyard have become an important record of an extinct species. 

HOW DOES FIRE AFFECT WILDLIFE?

People often think wildfires in nature are bad for wildlife and the environment, but the opposite can be true. Wildfires can be helpful by destroying certain types of plants that crowd out native species. The ashes that remain can also help the growth of new, young plants that provide good food for animals. 

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER FACTORS IN EXTINCTIONS?

In 1913, Dr. William Hornaday, a conservation activist and director of the organization that was later the Bronx Zoo, wrote a book, Our Vanishing Wildlife. He listed species of birds that had become or were nearing extinction in the 48 states in America more than 100 years ago. It also listed the causes of extinctions. Among those causes were cats, domestic and feral (domestic cats living in the wild). In this story, cats were known to contribute to the demise of the Heath Hen. Today, leading conservation organizations estimate that cats kill 2.4 billion birds a year nationwide. 

WHY DID FEMALE HEATH HENS LEAVE NESTS DURING FIRE?

“After the fire, not only were there fewer heath hens, but now there were far fewer female than male birds.”

But why? It is known that the 1916 Martha’s Vineyard fire occurred at a time the female birds were hatching eggs and tending chicks at their nests, and long-believed that, despite the heat and flames and smoke, they would not abandon them and perished as a result. However, some naturalists say this is not typical behavior for grouse, and more likely winds and smoke, not motherly protection, overcame the female birds.

But Dr. Alfred Gross and others certainly knowledgeable about the catastrophe, were among those who believed the female birds were not simply overcome, but chose to stay on or near nests with their eggs and young. Because animal behavior is very important to scientists, educators and officials, the debate continues today! 

WHERE WAS BOOMING BEN LAST SEEN?

Jimmy Green’s West Tisbury farm became the last place where the heath hens and Booming Ben lived. He was a native of Barbados in the Caribbean and a former whaler and ferryboat fireman. Perhaps he had come to the Vineyard for maritime work and decided to become a farmer. Jimmy Green was glad to help Alfred Gross and others use his fields to study, support, and keep track of the Heath Hens. Nearby is a statue of Booming Ben, the bird they so admired.

BANDING 

In this story, bird banding plays a unique and important role.

This additional information has been provided by Wayne Petersen, Mass Audubon field ornithologist.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO "BAND" A BIRD?

To band a bird is to put a unique numbered ring on a bird’s leg so that if it’s ever recaptured or found dead somewhere, the information on the band can be returned to the Bird Banding Office (bandreports@usgs.gov) so both the original bander and the finder of the band can be notified that the band and the bird have been recovered along with where and when it was found, the species of bird if possible, and which leg the band was on.  The band will have info on it to let the finder know how to report it.

 

IS IT HARD TO BAND A WILD BIRD?

It’s not too difficult once you know how to do it, but it requires a license that indicates someone is certified to do it.  Often the most difficult part of bird banding is capturing birds, especially if they are small birds and need to be removed from mist nets set in wooded areas.  This takes a lot of practice and a degree of manual dexterity to avoid hurting the bird as it’s removed from a net.  For larger birds like waterfowl, raptors, Heath Hens (!), etc., the trapping procedure is different but the process is similar once the bird is captured.

 

DOES IT HURT THE BIRD?

Done properly by an experienced bander, it should not hurt the bird at all, and once a bird is banded it’s like a person wearing a ring on their finger.

 

DO PEOPLE BAND BIG BIRDS LIKE CROWS AND HAWKS,  AND TINY BIRDS LIKE HUMMINGBIRDS? 

Yes, but as noted above, the techniques for capturing the birds is different, and for tiny birds like hummers, or really large birds like cranes, the bands and the banding techniques are obviously quite different.

 

DO BANDS STAY ON FOREVER?  CAN A BIRD GET TANGLED IN BRUSH OR LIMBS BECAUSE IT HAS A BAND ON?

Some bands last pretty much forever, but for long-lived birds, or seabirds that are constantly in saltwater, sometimes a band will need to be replaced if the bird is recaptured with a worn band.  It’s very rare for a band to become entangled in vegetation.  Again, it’s similar to a ring on your finger that won’t bother the bird.

WHO KEEPS THE RECORD OF BIRD BANDINGS?

The bander has to keep records, and he/she must annually send the banding data from each season.  The data that’s submitted is then kept in a giant, computerized database at the U.S. Bird Banding Office so if a band is recovered, it can be tracked back to the bander with all the attendant data.

 

HOW ARE THE RECORDS USEFUL?

The records are very useful and contribute all kinds of information about longevity, migratory destinations, changes in plumage, distribution, etc.  This is the real reason that bird-banding is done, and has been done for so many years.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

 

American Bird Conservancy www. abcbirds.org

Audubon Society (www.audubonva.org)

Bird Banding Laboratory | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)

what to do if you find a banded bird - Search (bing.com)

Bowdoin College Library Archives  www.bowdoincollege.edu

Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and Thornton W. Burgess Society (www.ccmnh.org)

Martha’s Vineyard Museum (www.mvmuseum.org

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