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,
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.