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.
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.
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.
Stewart Brand – Founder/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
With our special thanks
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum and the Vineyard Gazette joined forces for the July 24 event to create a special 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
Hilary 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
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.
As 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.