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Long-extinct heath hen comes to life in archival film

A woodcut showing heath hens, with two males in the foreground and a female in the background. State of Massachusetts 1912

MEDFORD — The bird stamps its feet on the ground, taking mincing dance steps through the corn stubble. Neck feathers flare like a headdress, and the male puffs out his neck, making a hollow, hooting call that has been lost to history.

These courtship antics are captured on a silent, black-and-white film that is believed to be the only footage of something not seen for nearly a century: the extinct heath hen.

The film, circa 1918, is the birding equivalent of an Elvis sighting, said Wayne Petersen of Mass Audubon — mind-blowing and transfixing to people who care. It will premier Saturday at a birding conference in Waltham.


Massachusetts officials commissioned the film nearly a century ago as part of an effort to preserve and study the game bird, once abundant from Southern New Hampshire to Northern Virginia. Then, like the heath hen, the film was largely forgotten.

Martha’s Vineyard is where the last known heath hens lived, protected in a state preserve. But the last one vanished by 1932.

“I had heard about this film through various channels off and on through the years. It had gotten to the point where it was almost apocryphal in my mind” said Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program for Mass Audubon. “Nobody knew where it was, nobody had ever seen it, but I was aware it existed. It was like the holy grail.”

No one seems to quite remember the date, but some years ago two canisters containing brittle, aging film that was at risk of spontaneous combustion were found stored at the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Aging tape with the words “heath hen” was its only label. One canister was sent off to the Smithsonian Institution, recalled Ellie Horwitz, who discovered the film sometime in the middle of her 34-year tenure at the agency. The other canister presented a dilemma because the film was in such terrible condition it might disintegrate.


“It was iffy whether the film could be viewed. And if it could be viewed, chances were we could view it one time, and the question is what are you going to do in that one time,” said Horwitz, who retired in 2011. “We had one shot at it; we thought the thing to do was to digitize it.”

The film was converted to a digital format and a few copies were sent to outside institutions and agencies. But as far as anyone knows, few if any people in the general public have ever seen it. State officials think the 40-minute film may be the only extant video footage of a game bird that was once so abundant that servants would ask to have written into their contracts a limitation on the number of times per week it could be served.

Two weeks ago, Petersen finally saw the film.

“We had an office full of people sitting there with our jaws on the table,” he said.

The presentation this weekend at the Mass Audubon Birders Meeting, officials hope, will remind people of the bird and the lessons that can be learned from species that have winked out of existence. And perhaps drawing attention to the bird again will help flush out any other archival footage that may exist in private collections.


Matthew Kamm, a graduate student at Tufts University who will present portions of the video during a talk, is studying the statistical population patterns that occur when a species nears extinction.

On Wednesday morning in a reading room at Tufts, Kamm paged through a copy of a manuscript by a Bowdoin College ornithologist who studied the species. He pointed to the steeply sloping curve of a graph of the population of the heath hen in the 1920s. That exponential decline, he said, is a “very standard extinction curve.”

The heath hen is a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, a grouse-like bird that still exists in the Midwest. Its rapid disappearance from the East Coast can provide lessons for today, Kamm argues, because it disappeared despite concerted efforts to save the bird. The heath hen received at least some legal protections against hunters for more than a century before it disappeared, and the state made concerted efforts to control cats and other predators.

But the fowl disappeared from the mainland altogether by the mid-1800s. Kamm said that the scarcity of the bird actually made it more of a prize, because private collectors and even museums wanted to collect specimens. A 1908 article in The Boston Globe described the precarious situation:

“Few people are aware that the last living specimens of the eastern pinnated grouse, or heath hen, belong to Massachusetts, and are gathered together, about 200 in all, in the bushy interior of the island of Martha’s Vineyard. In this, their last stand in the world they are jealously guarded by the state in a ‘sanctuary,’ so called, of about 1500 acres.”


The reservation established on the Vineyard was protected by a warden. Efforts were made to reestablish populations; some birds were moved to Long Island, N.Y., unsuccessfully. Prairie chickens from the Midwest were even brought in to interbreed with the heath hens, to try to buoy the population.

But a forest fire during the breeding season in 1916 wiped out many heath hens and helped create a gender imbalance — more males than females. That winter, an influx of birds of prey called goshawks also threatened the birds.

The birds’ numbers dwindled further: a Globe article noted that in 1927 there were 13 known heath hens and that by 1929 there was only one lone male left.

“Scientifically and practically he died many times before his death, for, as a whole bundle of clippings testify, he was mourned with each succeeding season that showed him still surviving, but alone, with no possibility of any kindred company,” the Globe article said.

Jim Cardoza, a retired wildlife biologist who worked for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said that for him, the film holds lessons about how conservation efforts have evolved.

“The thing that is striking to me is the habitat of the animal — it looks like they’re out in corn fields and open areas and things like that,” Cardoza said. “That isn’t what the birds really inhabited — they were a scrub-land species.” Conservationists at the time, he said, “didn’t know what the habitat requirements of the species even was.”


But Cardoza and others said the thrill of the film will be in seeing the bird come to life, which they hope will serve as a reminder of how vulnerable even relatively common species are to environmental changes and habitat loss.

“It’s always kind of an emotional thing to watch an extinct species on film,” Kamm said. “Because on one hand you feel an enormous privilege . . . but on the other hand, you can’t help but feel the loss.”

Saturday’s conference is all day at Bentley University. Registration is $75 for the general public.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@
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