Saturday, October 01, 2016

The bird is dead; long live the bird!

When the friend with whom I have been staying on Martha's Vineyard was born, there was still at least one heath hen alive on the island. The last known bird died in 1932 and the species is extinct.

In the colonial era, heath hens were extremely common in barrens along the Atlantic Coast from New Hampshire to Virginia. There is speculation that the bird served at the Puritan settlers' "first Thanksgiving" was a heath hen. In any case, they were such a staple of the diet among the poor that servants may have bargained not to be fed heath hen more than two or three times a week.

By the early 20th century, only a small population remained, all on Martha's Vineyard. The declining numbers stimulated a conservation effort, including a hunting ban and creation of the "Heath Hen Reserve" (today the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest). Though the heath hens are gone, this 5000 acre scrubland preserve remains. An 11 mile bike path runs around its perimeter.

And, unexpectedly, a good mile from any point accessible by car, a massive cast bronze statue memorializes lost creature, courtesy of the Lost Bird Project. Accounts of the heath hen do not suggest the bird was every quite so noble and imposing, though the males were given to loud mating displays. Although marked on tourist maps, the statue is an unexpected addition to a landscape without prominent features.

This sad tale of extinction nearly within living memory has made the bird the object of a project called Revive & Restore which aims at "genetic rescue." This summer, according to the Vineyard Gazette,

Ryan Phelan and Stewart Brand, the founders of Revive & Restore, an organization that aims to use genetics to rescue endangered species and revive extinct species, paid a brief visit to the Island this week to share news about rapid advancement in their work with the heath hen ...The most recent achievement is considered ground breaking: the potential culture of primordial germ cells from a greater prairie chicken. “This is the breakthrough. This is the news. This is potentially the game changer,” Mr. Brand said.

Beyond the intricacies of the science, the success so far with the heath hen project is also making a case for applying biotechnology to wildlife conservation, Ms. Phelan and Mr. Brand told a group of supporters... “This isn’t a fringe thing in conservation,” Vineyard conservationist and project advisor Tom Chase said. “This is the beginning of a new way, this is bringing back iconic species that are representative of big healthy habitats . . . . it’s a movement.”

Inevitably, the success of the effort to restore the heath hen will eventually require maintenance and restoration of a habitat in which the birds can thrive. That project may prove even more difficult than the genetic research now being carried on.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

What I am most in favor of is keeping large tracts of land open for public use. We are getting to be such a crowded country, and we need room to move around where there are (especially) no cars. This is not as sexy as restoring lost species, of course. But I must admit to being a human chauvinist who wants more open space and what's left of natural areas available to everyone.

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