Heath Hens (Tympanuchus cupido cupido)
late ninteenth century
Gift of Madeleine Almy
Heath hens once roamed the borderland between prairie and forest across New England in great numbers. The bird belonged to the grouse family and, like its relatives, engaged in elaborate and theatrical courtship displays, full of stamping and spinning. The males turned up feathers on their necks and inflated large orange sacs at their throats that created a loud and low "booming."
Yet without the heath, there could be no heath hens. The demise of this species is a story of habitat destruction and overhunting, attempts at conservation that created the Island's state forest, and ultimate failure.
The birds were easy targets for hunters, who killed so many that the government enacted hunting bans and fines as early as the eighteenth century. These measures did little to curb the widespread destruction of the species, and by the 1870s heath hens were all but extinct. It was only on a small section at the center of Martha's Vineyard that a population remained, the last of their kind in the world. In 1908 the heath hens' breeding ground, a six-hundred-acre area at the center of the Island, now the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, became the reservation for their protection with a warden to watch over them, but to no avail.
By 1929, only one heath hen, a male nicknamed "Booming Ben," remained. He returned each spring to his ancestral breeding ground until 1932. After that, he was never seen again.