Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Last of Booming Ben

A male Heath Hen like Booming Been in mating display.

The old bachelor was out doing his duty.  If it was a typical March day on Martha’s Vineyard, the island just south of Cape Cod that even then was beloved of summer people and the year-round home of a few hearty souls, the wind was brisk and chilly off of the Atlantic, the skies gray, but the winter snows mostly melted, lingering in shaded spots here and there.  Booming Ben, as he fruitlessly did every year, strutted his stuff proudly, fanning his tail, his pinnae—horns—proudly pointed and erect behind his head, and, as his name implied, booming from the inflated pouches on his throat.  Alas, no mate heard his call.  None ever did.
A sharp eyed bird watcher noted Ben’s presence on the lekkingbreedinggrounds on the special reserve that had been set aside to preserve his kind.  After that, Ben vanished, probably dead within hours of his last performance.  And with him came the end of Heath Hens.  After March 11, 1932 they were extinct.
The Heath Hen, a member of the ground dwelling grouse family, was once not only common, but plentiful.  They ranged in the scrubby heathland barrens of coastal America from southern New Hampshire to northern Virginia and likely as far south as Florida in pre-Columbian times.  They flourished in a limited, but common coastal habitat with few natural predators.  Native American tribes hunted them but did not damage the populations, except perhaps in the Deep South from which the birds had vanished or retreated long ago.  But that could also be due to climate or other change.
Early European settlers found the birds to be a welcome—and easily harvested—food source.  Many scholars believe that Heath Hen was the fowl on the table at the inter-communal harvest feast at Plymouth later mythologized as the First Thanksgiving.  In early Colonial times they were so ubiquitous that they were regularly observed on Boston Common when it was a communal grazing ground for sheep and cattle.  In such abundance, Heath Hens became a protein staple, particularly for the class of laborers, apprentices, household and other indentured servants, and slaves. 
Thomas L. Winthrop, a politician and member of a distinguished Massachusetts family, studied the Heath Hen and its history and reported in a paper delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the early 19th Century reported that some Colonial servants were so sick of a diet of Heath Hen that they bargained with their employers not to be fed the bird more than two or three times a week.
An artist's rendition of a mating pair.

Consumption on that level obviously began to take a drastic toll on Heath Hen populations.  So did other factors and stresses, especially the introduction of a significant new predator—feral cats, the widespread destruction of their habitat, and introduction of diseases from domestic fowl.  Mainland populations fell dramatically all through the 19th Century.
Pressure on the population was severe enough even at the end of the 18th Century for the New York State Legislature to pass a bill for “the preservation of heath-hen and other game.”  It was the first legislation in the fledgling nation designed to preserve a threatened species.  Unfortunately its provisions limiting hunting were virtually unenforceable and the population continued it precipitous decline.
Other efforts and proposal dotted the coming century.  But preservation efforts were complicated by confusion of just what the Heath Hen was.  

A male Prairie Chicken--the same species?
In 1806 Lewis and Clark brought back from their great Western expedition, the first samples of the Prairie Chicken seen on the East Coast.  Although larger and with somewhat different markings and colorings, scientist  quickly recognized it as a close relative of the Heath Hen—or perhaps they were variations on the same species, or the Heath Hen and  another bird, the Lesser Prairie Chicken found southward from the plains of Kansas through Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, are sub-species of the Prairie Chicken.  Although today generally classified as a sub-species, Tympanuchus cupido cupido the debate rages on among ornithologists. 
Whether a species or a sup-species, the mystery is how two populations so widely separated—the Prairie Chicken thrived on the High Plaines roughly west of the Mississippi and east of the Rocky Mountains from the Dakotas  to Texas—could have a common origin.  No fossil evidence has ever been found of a common ancestor or overlapping territory at any point.
This was important because after it became apparent that the Heath Hen was all but doomed, efforts were made as early as 1820 and continuing through the century to introduce the Prairie Chicken to occupy the same ecological mix and perhaps to strengthen and boost Heath Hen population by the introduction of vigorous new genes.
But the Prairie Chickens not only failed to thrive, they generally quickly died out of areas where they were introduced.  The diets available on the arid High Plains and in the soggy, humid costal heath wastes were evidently too different.  The Prairie Chickens also were susceptible to the same stresses from feral cats, domestic fowl diseases, and human preditation as the Heath Hen.
Scientists, however, are unsure if there was any interbreeding between the introduced birds and the natives.  Some think it was unlikely due to differences in courtship rituals so important to both species and to the relatively limited time they were exposed to one another.  Others believe that interbreeding was inevitable and that long before the Heath Hen disappeared on the mainland it was genetically no longer distinct.
At any rate sometime between 1840 and 1870 the Heath Hen went extinct on the mainland.  That left only the isolated population on Martha’s Vineyard.  And between mid-century and 1900 numbers there dwindled from about 300 to 15-200 in 1890 and only 70 at the dawn of the 20th Century.  That meant that the population was deeply interbred and probably already doomed.
But valiant efforts by conservationists were made to save the bird.  A complete hunting ban was instituted and enforcement against poachers was drastically increased.  In 1909 the Heath Hen Reserve was established protecting much of its remaining territory and lekking grounds.  At first efforts seemed to pay off.  The population seemed to recover to almost 2000 birds by 1916. 
Then that year disaster struck in the form of a raging brush fire that consumed much of the park in the middle of the breading season.  A succession of unusually harsh winters followed.  The population again took a nose dive.
Ironically, the preservation efforts themselves contributed to the fire that precipitated the population collapse.  The ecology of the saltwater heaths was not well understood.  It depended on regular natural lightning ignited to rapidly scorch the ground and burn off encroaching woody plants and vines.  The fire helped the seeds dropped the previous season from sedge grasses and other plants open up and provide food and nesting for the birds.  Their cousins the Prairie Chickens out on the High Plains similarly depended on regular natural fires.
But conservation practice of the day was to prevent or immediately extinguish all fires.  Fire breaks were mandated in the development of the reserve and local fire companies extended their service to the park.  As a result undergrowth began choking the lekking grounds which provided cover for their worst predators—cats and was fuel for a really big fire which could not be easily controlled.
The population rallied one last time rising back to 600 in 1920 than began the steady march to extinction. 1927, only about a dozen were left an only two were females.  The next year only a solitary male—Ben—returned to the lekking grounds.  He returned for five more lonely years before vanishing.

Monument to Boombing Ben and the Heath Hen.

There have been serious proposals to restore what is now the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest to its original condition, recreating the lost habitat of the Heath Hen.  Some then want to attempt to re-introduce Prairie Chickens an umbrella species occupying the niche of the Heath Hen as a monitor of habitat quality.  That remains highly controversial given the lack of success in introducing Prairie Chickens more than 100 years ago on the mainland and because Prairie Chickens themselves are under stress and threatened throughout much of their range.
Sometimes with the best of intentions you just cannot squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

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