Chicken has always served as a palatable meal any time of the day. But have you ever wondered how many chicken species exist and how many of them went extinct? Could you give it a thought?
The Heath hen was an eastern subspecies of the Greater prairie chicken. No one can ever see this hen alive as it is now an extinct species. They were extremely prevalent during colonial times and were extensively used as a food source for early American settlers, but today we stand with no live species of this bird in the wild. So what was once tasty small wildfowl and a poor man's bird a century ago became extinct in 1932.
Today we have 500 chicken breeds globally, of which some are wild birds, and most of them are domesticated for meat and eggs. While a few species went extinct, some are on the verge of extinction and remain endangered. No matter what, the story of Heath hen reminds us of our responsibility to make sure we coexist with all being on this beautiful planet.
If this article has motivated you to learn about other bird species, then here are a few for you on the prairie chicken and grebe.
What do they prey on?
What do they eat?
Average litter size?
How much do they weigh?
2 lb (0.9 kg)
How long are they?
17 in (43 cm)
How tall are they?
What do they look like?
Reddish and grayish brown
What are their main threats?
What is their conservation status?
Where you'll find them
Scrubby heathland barrens
Tympanuchus cupido cupido
Heath Hen Interesting Facts
What type of animal is a Heath Hen?
The Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) was a hen from the grouse family.
What class of animal does a Heath Hen belong to?
Heath hens belonged to the class of Aves (birds); it was a close relative of the Prairie chicken.
How many Heath Hens are there in the world?
The Heath hen population in the world is zero. Almost a couple of centuries ago, they were found abundantly in New England, northeastern states from Virginia to Maine, but as of 1932, the species had to face extinction.
Where does a Heath Hen live?
Heath hen birds liked to live in scrubby heathland barrens of coastal North America. They were most popular in the southernmost New Hampshire to northern Virginia, possibly south to Florida pre historically.
What is a Heath Hen's habitat?
The Heath hen was wildfowl; they were found in deciduous forests, sandplain grasslands, and sandy scrub-oak plains.
Who do Heath Hens live with?
Like most chickens, it is believed that Heath hen birds too lived in groups called flocks, and each flock contains roosters, hens, and chicks.
How long does a Heath Hen live?
The exact data on how long a Heath hen lived is not available. However, when it comes to the cousin Greater prairie chicken, they live for about 1.6 years.
How do they reproduce?
Like all hens, it is assumed that Heath hen reproduces through sexual reproduction. A rooster mates with a hen, and she lays fertilized eggs. The young ones hatch after the hen incubates the eggs.
As exact information of the extinct spices is not available, in general, a Prairie chicken lays between 5-17 eggs per clutch. After incubation, the eggs hatch in 23 -24 days.
The male Heath hens were seen bowing, strutting, fighting, dancing with tail and neck feathers erect before the breeding season. The males have an inflated orange sack on their necks, which helped these birds make various sounds, a mournful echoing sound, deep hooting moan to impress the female birds.
What is their conservation status?
The conservation status as per the IUXN of the Heath hen is Extinct.
Way back during the colonial times, Heath hens were immensely seen from Maine to the Carolinas in scrubby coastal habitats. But in 1870, the population of these birds disappeared entirely from the mainland and was found only at Martha's Vineyard (Island, off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts). Unfortunately, due to hunting pressure, habitat loss, wildfires, inbreeding, and poultry diseases lead to a severe decline of the species in the following decades. It resulted in a complete wipeout of its population in 1932.
Heath Hen Fun Facts
What do Heath Hens look like?
Heath hens, the North American birds, looked similar to Greater prairie chicken but were comparatively smaller in size. They were considered as the eastern nominate subspecies of the Greater prairie chicken. They had a well-distinguished reddish hue in their plumage in crop areas, and the tail was grayish brown. They had thicker barring along the breast and sides. Males have inflated orange sacks on their necks, pointed horn-like neck feathers (Pinnae), and erect tails when strutting.
How cute are they?
Being gallinaceous bird (ground-feeding birds), these hens were cute by looks and by nature. However, as Heath hen is not seen any more. If we look at the similar species Lesser prairie chicken and Greater prairie chickens, they look pretty impressive.
How do they communicate?
A Hen communicates vocally. They express their behaviors, thoughts, feelings through a variety of sounds. Male Heath hens were known for the air sacs in the bird's neck that enlarges while strutting and they make a strange whistling or boom sound.
How big is a Heath Hen?
Heath hen was 17 in long and two pounds in weight approximately. It was claimed by Alexander Wilson to have found a three-pound Heath hen, but ornithologists did not confirm that figure. The most common Brahma chicken is more than twice the weight of Heath hen.
How fast can a Heath Hen fly?
The Heath hen's exact speed was not recorded, but it is assumed that they fly very short distances like most chicken breeds. They fly no more than few seconds and few feet.
How much does a Heath Hen weigh?
Heath hens weighed as much as two pounds (0.9 kg), almost equal to the weight of current-day Greater prairie chickens.
What are the male and female names of the species?
A male species is called a male Heath hen or rooster, while the female is called a hen.
What would you call a baby Heath Hen?
Baby Heath hens are called chicks.
What do they eat?
The chicken is no picky eater; being an omnivorous breed, they eat vegetables, grains, worms, and as a matter of fact, anything that comes across its beak! Heath hen too is believed to have eaten whatever a regular chicken eats.
Are they dangerous?
Hens or roosters get aggressive to defend their flocks or young ones. But there is no recorded evidence that Heath hens have harmed humans or other animals.
Would they make a good pet?
There is no way to have an extinct Heath hen as a pet. But had we been in the 1800s we might have got a chance to domesticate these hens!
Did you know...
Booming Ben is the last known Heath hen found in Martha's Vineyard (south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts). It is very upsetting to know that this bird has spent his final years giving mating sounds calling females who no longer exist to hear. In memory of the last spotted Heath hen, a sculpture was built in the Manuel F. Correllus state forest on Martha's Vineyard.
With the advancement in genetic technology, there is still a tiny ray of hope of seeing the species back to life. The Martha's Vineyard Community is working closely to work out if they can recover the species using the genome of the closest living relative, the Prairie chicken. If it works out to be successful, Martha's Vineyard could witness Heath hen back live again.
There was a great amount of discussion and research that happened to validate if the Heath hen belonged to the subspecies of Greater prairie chicken or Lesser prairie chicken.
The Heath Hen's extinction
The Heath hen is of the first endangered species for the US who tried to put in the conservation effort to save them from extinction; New York State Legislature passed a bill in 1791 'For the preservation of Heath-hen and other game.' But the story of Heath hen reveals that no matter much effort humans put in to save an endangered species, environmental factors and unintentional destruction of habitats by humans will result in erasing a species from the wild completely.
The Heath hen population completely vanished from the mainland due to extensive hunting and other environmental factors and became an endangered species. On the Island of Martha's Vineyard (Massachusetts) in 1870, only hundreds of birds were remaining, and poaching and feral cats were considered to the reason for it. As a result of the conservation efforts in the name of Heath Hen Reserve (called by the name the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, today), the population grew to 2,000. But unfortunately, due to destructive fire, hunting by predators, blackhead disease, and a few other reasons, the population declined to 600 in 1920. Gradually the female numbers decreased, and one last male survived as of 1928. It was named Booming Ben; he was last seen on Jimmy Green's farm (West Tisbury road) in spring 1932. Imagine the last bird in its species that roamed about giving mating calls, with no females to impress and no males to compete against. Booming Ben was presumed dead, and there ends the story of the extinction of Heath hen from the earth.
The lesson learned during the process of losing Heath hen is that the knowledge gained by ornithologists is helping them to incorporate better conservation measures for other endangered birds that are on the verge of extinction.
Evolution of the chicken
The first chicken evolved due to a genetic mutation of two proto-chickens—the very first cell of the very first chicken evolved by a combination of DNA. Do you know that the domestic chicken we have today is believed to be the closest living relative of Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex)? The evolution of chicken is based on a group of dinosaurs called the theropods.
Today's domestic chicken is a primary ancestor of Red junglefowl and is believed to have been domesticated way back around 4,000 BC in the Indus Valley. Over time, genetic adaptations occurred, and thus, various breeds have evolved.
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