Heath Hen

Strutting through the brush, male Heath Hens boomed and pounded the earth to attract a mate.  Each year, returning to their breeding grounds, they engaged in spectacular displays of bravado and strength, jumping and spinning in the air, thrusting their chests against one another, as they competed for the right to propagate their species.

When European settlers arrived on the east coast, they hunted the bird so extensively that servants bargained not to be fed Heath Hen more than two or three times a week.  The Heath Hen’s habitat stretched along the coast of New England from Maine to Virginia.  But by 1870, due to overexploitation, the Heath Hen population on the mainland of the east coast had vanished.

Numbering in the 100’s, the survivors lived on Martha’s Vineyard.  Over the next quarter of a century, the state of Massachusetts attempted to save them: enacting a hunting ban, shooting predatory animals, planting crops to feed the hens, and establishing a reserve in 1908.  But numbers continued to diminish.  A disastrous fire and the unfortunate arrival of goshawks, a serious Heath Hen predator, ravaged the remaining population.

Heath Hens usually flew only to the lower branches of trees.  But in 1929 ornithologists witnessed a hopeful male fly to the top of a tree and call out, loud and repeatedly, across the island.  There were no Heath Hens to hear his plea.  He was last seen on March 11, 1932.

The memorial to the Heath Hen is located in the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest on Martha’s Vineyard.