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About the Heath Hen

The Heath Hen was once common throughout New England, but by the 1870s over-hunting left the last living birds stranded on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Recognizing that the island habitat was the bird’s last hope for survival, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard formed one of America’s first major conservation efforts, banning hunting, setting aside protected land, and monitoring the population. It was a successful effort until a series of disasters wiped out the population and the last bird died in 1932.

The extinct Heath Hen inhabited sandy scrub-oak plains interspersed throughout the deciduous forests of northeastern states from Virginia to Maine.

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The map (above) of New England shows the traditional range of the Heath Hen, with its last refuge — Martha’s Vineyard — highlighted.

 

 

Heath Hen

The Heath Hen family: A complete genomic studies of both the heath hen and one of its closest living relatives, the greater prairie chicken, showed to be a unique species.

The Heath Hen is an extinct subspecies within the Prairie Chicken Tympanuchus cupido complex, including the extant Greater Prairie Chicken (GPC) and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken (APC) subspecies.

If the Heath Hen were to come back to New England, it might not come back to Martha’s Vineyard. The bird needs habitat, and other, near-by islands could provide a better habitat. However, if conservationists tackle that challenge, other species in the area would benefit as well. For example, eliminating predators that decimate existing ground-nesting birds would allow other species to thrive.

Heath Hen de-extinction would not only bring back this extinct bird and revitalize the ecology of New England, but its return could also be the gateway to bringing genetic rescue to all birds. The problem is that you can’t clone a bird the way you can mammals: there’s no uterus in which to implant an embryo with an edited genome. The ingenious workaround is to create “chimeric” parents with edited reproductive cells. Though the stages of that procedure have been demonstrated effectively in chickens, no one has carried out the whole process with a wildlife species.

Sandplain_SBA current example of a sandplain on the Island that would be ideal Heath Hen habitat. Photo credit: Stewart Brand.

Heath Hen Natural History

Long-extinct heath hen comes to life in archival film

Heath Hen Oral Histories

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum Oral History Center promotes the preservation and collection of Vineyard history, past and present, through recorded oral history interviews and related materials. Oral histories involving the heath hen have been carefully selected from the collection for the July 24 Heath Hen event. An oral history by Hollis Smith is shown below.