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The Martha’s Vineyard community convened in the summer of 2014 to discuss whether the extinct heath hen could be recoverable. 

The last of the heath hens died in 1932, but now in the 21st century, their DNA is fully restorable and the heath hen could come back.

Heath Hen Talk; Ag Hall

Community Town Hall Event, Martha’s Vineyard, July 24, 2014. Photo credit: Ray Ewing.

Event Report:
The Heath Hen
Could Come Back

Community Town Hall Event, Martha’s Vineyard, July 24, 2014

 By Stewart Brand

Speakers: Stewart Brand, Tom Chase, Josh Donlan, Tom Dunlop, Matt Pelikan, Ryan Phelan

Heath Hens were wild chickens once abundant throughout New England, but they were so tasty and easy to shoot that they were hunted to extinction on the mainland by 1870. One last flock survived on Martha’s Vineyard for 60 years because Islanders invented the form of conservation known as habitat preservation. What is now the State Forest was originally set aside and protected as Heath Hen habitat, and the birds were defended against hunters and predators.

In the 1920s the Island became famous for its beloved but dwindling flock, and when the last one, known as “Booming Ben,” died in 1932, the sense of tragedy was widespread.  In the Vineyard Gazette Henry Beetle Hough wrote an editorial that became the definitive statement about extinction:

There is no survivor, there is no future, there is no life to be recreated in this form again. We are looking upon the uttermost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light. We are in touch with the reality of extinction.

That last chapter in the Heath Hen saga helped set in motion the conservation movement of the 20th century.

Renewed Hope for the Heath Hen

But what if it is not the last chapter, and Martha’s Vineyard can take up the story where it left off and demonstrate a revolutionary new set of goals and tools for conservation?

Thanks to recent and still-emerging breakthroughs in genetic technology, we told the Islanders, it is becoming possible the bring the extinct Heath Hen back to life.  Its genome can be completely reassembled from DNA still in the 100+ museum specimens.  The unique genes of the subspecies can be edited into the genome of its closest living relative, the Prairie Chicken, effectively resurrecting the Heath Hen via a sort of one-directional hybridization.

It is possible, for technical reasons, that the Heath Hen could be the first animal brought back from extinction.  (The Heath Hen and Prairie Chicken are so closely related that genome comparison, gene transfer, and surrogate parenting could be relatively simple; also the genome of the domestic chicken has been thoroughly studied, which will make all the genome analysis quicker and more certain.)

On July 24, 2014 Revive & Restore organized an evening panel event at the Ag Hall, titled “The Heath Hen Could Come Back.”  Panelists included Islanders Tom Chase, Matt Pelikan, and Tom Dunlop, along with island conservationist Josh Donlan and the co-founders of Revive & Restore, Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan.  The audience of 175 was enthusiastic, and a report in the Vineyard Gazette, “Heath Debate Contains Vineyard DNA,” gave a thorough account of the evening.

Heath Hen Talk; Ag Hall
Pictured L to R: Stewart Brand, Matt Pelikan, Tom Chase, Josh Donlan, Ryan Phelan and Tom Dunlop. Photo credit: Ray Ewing

The conservationists on the panel suggested that the ambitious vision of bringing back the Island’s most famous bird and its former shrubland/grassland habitat could inspire efforts to restore much of the Island’s wildlands to their original more biodiverse condition, reducing some of the current overgrowth of forest with prescribed fire and other techniques.  Also the Island’s excess of meso-predators (skunks, raccoons, and feral cats) could be reduced to a more natural level.  Among the co-beneficiaries would be many birds, mammals, and flowers now seldom seen.

Two of the postdocs on the Mammoth Revivalist team —Justin Quinn and Margo Monroe—brought their enthusiasm from the Wyss Institute at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

A supportive editorial in the Vineyard Gazette, “What Would Henry Do?” concluded:

And as Henry Beetle Hough understood, a small bird with a booming voice can be a compelling symbol of something larger than itself.

Immediately following the editorial was a letter from Stephen Kellert, a Yale professor emeritus and former co-author with E.O. Wilson of “The Biophilia Hypothesis.”  He wrote:

I was privileged last night, along with many others, to listen to the remarkably intelligent, informative and persuasive remarks of six panelists speaking about the possible “rebirth” of an extinct subspecies, the heathhen, a bird once so abundant colonial indentured servants refused to work if fed the birds too often…. Restoring the heathhen offers us the chance for a moral reawakening. It provides us with an affirmative opportunity to restore our connection to the earth and contribute to the healing and beauty of the land. It provides us with the chance to engage our relation to the world beyond ourselves of which we are a part. It offers Martha’s Vineyard the extraordinary opportunity to lead as an inspiring example to America of how by living in right relation to nature we may flourish and achieve an ineffable and deepening connection to the larger community of life.

Event Speakers

StewartBrand-1Stewart BrandFounder/editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, Cofounder of Revive & Restore

Stewart Brand is Cofounder of Revive & Restore, of The Long Now Foundation, of The WELL, Read More

of Global Business Network, and founder/editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. His books include Whole Earth Discipline, The Clock of the Long Now, How Buildings Learn, and The Media Lab. He was trained as a biologist at Stanford and served as an Infantry officer in the US Army.
Ryan_PhelanRyan PhelanEntrepreneur and Cofounder of Revive & RestoreRyan Phelan is Cofounder and Executive Director of Revive & Restore, with a mission to Read More
enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species. She is a serial entrepreneur active in both the for-profit and non-profit worlds. She was the founder and CEO of two innovative healthcare companies: DNA Direct (2005 to 2012), the first medical genetics company to focus on bringing personalized medicine to the consumer, (acquired in 2010 by Medco Health Solutions with over 55 million Medco members) and Direct Medical Knowledge (1995 to 2000), a consumer health web site unique for its content depth and innovative search interface, (acquired by WebMD in 1999). She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Personal Genome Project, which aims to sequence and publicize the complete genomes and medical records of 100,000 volunteers, in order to enable research into personalized medicine.
Josh_Donlan_cropJosh DonlanEcologist and specialist in island conservationJosh Donlan is the Founder and Director of Advanced Conservation Strategies, which focuses on outcomes, Read More
incentives, and sustainable finance. Its foundation is science, yet Advanced Conservation Strategies works and collaborates outside of science to design and implement new solutions and ventures. Trained as a scientist, Josh holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and an M.A. from University of California. Josh is Visiting Fellow in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and a Visiting Professor at University of South Paris. He has over fifteen years of experience in international environmental conservation. Josh has worked on environmental issues in over a dozen countries, including the management of invasive species, environmental restoration, ecological history, and developing financial and incentive instruments for environmental conservation. Josh served as the Chief Scientist for Project Isabela in Galápagos Islands, the world’s largest island restoration project. He also played a pivotal role in building the NGO Island Conservation, whose mission is to prevent extinctions by removing invasive species from islands, from a five-person operation to a multi-million dollar organization that now works in over a dozen countries. He served as a key advisor to the Chilean and Argentinean governments on the restoration of Tierra del Fuego. Josh’s efforts currently focus on innovation, environmental entrepreneurship, behavioral incentives, and human-centered design approaches to environmental problem solving.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATom ChaseEcologist, conservation strategistTom Chase directs the conservation strategies for the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Born and Read More
raised on Martha’s Vineyard, Tom brings a deep understanding of land-use change to the conservation of Massachusetts’s coasts, including making residential landscapes more supportive of essential ecological processes. Tom has a B. S. in Zooarchaeology from the University of Florida and an M.S. in Quaternary paleoecology from the University of Maine. His areas of expertise and interest include Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island, ecological restoration, conservation entrepreneurship, conservation education and community engagement, island ecology, archaeology, and climate change. Tom grew up hearing first-hand accounts of the heath hen and as child fantasized he might one day find them in a hidden corner of the Vineyard.
tom-dunlop-300x267Tom DunlopJournalist and authorWriter Tom Dunlop, a lifelong year-round and summer resident of the Island, is a former editor of and now Read More
contributing writer to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. He is the co-editor of the second edition of the Vineyard Gazette Reader. Tom lives in New York City, where he also works as a film producer.
Matt_PelikanMatt PelikanNaturalist and writerMatt Pelikan is a coastal ecologist on Martha’s Vineyard for The Nature Conservancy, helping to maintain and restore Read More
the island’s natural sandplain communities, along with shellfish and eelgrass of its shores and ponds. Matt also writes a regular column, “Wild Side,” for the MV Times and is a birder, ecologist, and conservationist. Matt is based at The Nature Conservancy’s Vineyard Haven office.

Exhibitors –MVMSealLowRes

With our special thanks

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum and the Vineyard Gazette joined forces for the July 24 event to create a special XitZkPvU_400x400 exhibit on the history of the heath hen and the extraordinary effort the Islanders’ made trying to save the species. Arranged in a linear timeline, the exhibit began in 1876 when the last flocks died on the mainland (leaving the Vineyard as the sole host of the near-extinct species) and ended in 1932 with the death of the last heath hen, “Booming Ben”, on Martha’s Vineyard.

The exhibit highlighted the heath hen’s history and the formation of a dedicated preserve (now the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest) where the flock initially thrived, and even recovered from a devastating fire in the spring of 1916 that burnt much of the island during nesting season. Beautifully chronicled by Henry Beetle Hough and captured in the audio recordings of those who remember, this interactive exhibit told not only the story of the heath hen’s extinction but the story of extinction itself. It’s also a story about the Vineyard community— their history, their vision and their leadership in the world of Island Conservation.

Martha’s Vineyard Museum


Anna Carringer is the assistant curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Founded in 1922, the Museum preserves and interprets collections that engage and connect the public Read More

to the Island’s history, art, and culture. Anna curates many of the museum’s changing exhibitions and helps to care for the thousands of objects in the collection.
KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERALinsey Lee is the Oral History Curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Linsey has been collecting oral histories of the people of Martha’s Vineyard Read More
for over 25 years. She is the author of Vineyard Voices — Words Faces and Voices of Martha’s Vineyard (1998), More Vineyard Voices (2003), Those Who Serve — Martha’s Vineyard and WWII (2010) and Edible Wild Plants of Martha’s Vineyard (1976)”.
nathaniel_smNathaniel Janick – Oral history assistant and Museum Archivist

Vineyard Gazette

Hilary_Wall_PortraitHilary Wall is the Archivist and Librarian at the Vineyard Gazette, a nationally recognized weekly newspaper based on Martha’s Vineyard. Founded in 1846, the Gazette has long been associated with conservation Read More

efforts. Its former editor and publisher, Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Beetle Hough, was in the forefront of efforts to save the heath hen from extinction in the 1930s. The Gazette also hosts an online collection of photos and articles on the heath hen.

The Vineyard Gazette Research Library & Archive has assembled a unique collection of newspaper clippings, town and state reports, manuscripts, scrapbooks and photographs that document the history of the Vineyard and its people. Hilary, is working toward a master’s degree in library science at Simmons College, and is dedicated to making the Vineyard Gazette’s historical collections accessible to the public.

Special Thanks

Susan_Banta_ColorAs Community Development Consultant for Revive & Restore, Susan Johnson Banta assisted with all phases of the 2014 event – “The Heath Hen Could Come Back”. Her long relationship with the Martha’s Vineyard Community put her in a unique position to bring the island leaders and the community together to discuss a potential heath hen revival project. Susan also coordinated the collaborative exhibit for the Heath Hen Event and designed the graphics for Revive & Restore’s heath hen event. Read more here.