Heath hen

Extinct in 1932
  • Heath hen
  • Heath hen

Heath hen the first North American bird species in our LOST ZOO

Shortly after our visit to the US and especially to the coastline of Massachusetts we received from there one pair Heath hens for our LOST ZOO.

Stuffed Heath hen@Field Museum

Stuffed Heath hen@Field Museum(Click to view larger image).

Like the Japanese Rock ptarmigan in the Toyama and Nagano area, also the North American Heath hen belongs to the group of grouses and similar to the ptarmigan, but quite different to other birds, the Heath hens too have feathered nostrils and their legs are feathered to the toes. The Heath hens live in the scrubby heathland barrens of coastal New England, from southernmost New Hampshire to northern Virginia and on some offshore islands.

Old photos of Heath hen
① Old photos of Heath hen

Old photos of Heath hen①
(Click to view larger image).

Old photos of Heath hen②
(Click to view larger image).

When the first Europeans settled in North America, Heath hens were extremely common in their habitat. So, they were hunted by the new settlers extensively for food. Probably in that time, the Thanksgiving turkey of the first North American settlers was indeed a Heath hen and not a Wild turkey. Because of the large Heath hen population, heath hens in the late 18th century had a reputation as poor man's food, because on the market they were so cheap and plentiful that servants in Boston area would bargain with a new employer for not being given Heath Hen for food more often than 2 or 3 days a week.

 4species which are relatives of Heath hen①Greater Prairie Chiken  4species which are relatives of Heath hen
②Atwater’s Prairie Chiken

Greater Prairie Chiken
(Click to view larger image).

Atwater’s Prairie Chiken
(Click to view larger image).

 4species which are relatives of Heath hen③  4species which are relatives of Heath hen

Sharp-tailed Grouse
(Click to view larger image).

Lesser Prairie Chicken
(Click to view larger image).

But because of such an intense hunting pressure, the Heath hen’s population declined rapidly. Perhaps as early as in the 1840s or at least by 1870, all Heath hens were extirpated on the mainland. Only on Martha's Vineyard, an island off Massachusetts, about 300 birds were left. Due to predation by feral cats and poaching this number declined by 1890 to 120-200 birds. By the late 1800s, there were only about 70 left. After the birds were protected by a hunting ban and in 1908 by the establishment of the "Heath Hen Reserve”, the population rapidly grew to almost 2000 again. In the mid-1910s, observing the birds on their courtship display grounds had become something of a tourist attraction.

Article about extinction of Heath hen in US newspaper, 1933 April

Old paintings of Heath hen(Click to view larger image).

But a destructive fire during the 1916 nesting season, severe winters, inbreeding, an excess number of male birds and an epidemic of disease, which probably was transmitted by domestic poultry, brought the numbers down quickly. After a last recovery to 600 in 1920, the population began to decline again. In 1927, only about a dozen were left. Only 2 of them were females and that number had declined to a handful, all males, by the end of the year. After December 1928, apparently only one male survived. The so called "Booming Ben" was last seen on his traditional courtship display ground on March 11, 1932. Presumably he died, about 8 years old, days or only hours afterwards from unknown causes.

Old paintings of Heath hen

Article about extinction of Heath hen in US newspaper, 1933 April(Click to view larger image).

Heath Hens were one of the first bird species that U.S. Americans tried to save from extinction. As early as 1791, a bill "for the preservation of Heath-hen and other game" was introduced in the New York legislation. Although the effort to save the Heath hen from extinction was unsuccessful, it paved the way for conservation of other bird species in the following years.

Heath hen enclosure in LOST ZOO

Heath hen enclosure in LOST ZOO
(Click to view larger image).

Exactly 85 years after the last male Heath hen has been seen in nature, we keep now these interesting North American birds in our LOST ZOO and we are happy that it is possible that the rare Heath hen share the same large enclosure as our Giant bison. So both species tell us the impression of the large North American plains and their fauna.

Executive Curator

Heath hen

The Heath hen is found at the Atlantic coast of New England, from southernmost New Hampshire to northern Virginia and on some offshore islands. At the beginning the heath hen was described as a subspecies of the Great Prairie chicken and indeed this subspecies was the first described Great Prairie chicken. Because of genetic research during the last few years, scientists today believe that the Heath hen does not belong to the Great Prairie chicken, but that it is in fact a separate species.

Body length: 43 cm

Body weight: 0.9 kg

Egg: Only 7 eggs are known in all the Natural History Museums of the world. Compared with the both closely related Prairie chicken species, it can be assumed that the egg clutch of Heath hens consists probably also of 7 and more eggs and that only the female breeds and looks for the chicks after hatching for several weeks and will feed them with insects.

Habitat: Heath hens live in the scrubby heathland barrens at the Northeastern coast of the USA.

Extinction: Became extinct in 1932 because of poultry disease and genetic effects, but mainly because of habitat destruction and overhunting.

Heath hen