"We had an office full of people sitting with our jaws on the table..."
March 12, 2014 7:15 PM   Subscribe

"I had heard about this film through various channels off and on through the years. It had gotten to the point where it was almost apocryphal in my mind.... Nobody knew where it was, nobody had ever seen it, but I was aware it existed. It was like the holy grail." said Wayne Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program for Mass. Audubon on the archival footage of the extinct heath hen discovered, restored and premiering at the Mass Audubon Birders Meeting this month.

NHPR has a short piece about what happened to other "last of their species" animals, including the heath hen.
posted by jessamyn (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Does that bird have ears?

Honestly I don't find the subject that interesting, but what I do find interesting is that they refer to this as the holy grail and mention their jaws dropping. It is good to remember that things which hold literally zero interest to me can be extremely important to other people, so I should try to be less judgmental and more open minded.

Then again, mentions of servants' contracts limiting the number of meals of heath hen they could be served seems like an urban legend as I have heard this about other stuff and I feel like it is an idea very casually thrown about. Still, nice post!
posted by Literaryhero at 7:38 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the earliest pieces of conservation legislation in the United States was proposed in NY to protect the heath hen, mid-19th century. Legislators misread it as "heathen," and promptly voted it down.
posted by one_bean at 7:47 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Literaryhero, I'm not sure where the Heath Hen falls in the top five most famous and well-known avian extinctions, but it's definitely up there with the Passenger Pigeon, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Dodo. And yes, servants didn't want to eat either it or lobster more than once a day (that's the other one you have probably heard about).

I read the article in the Globe, but didn't know the actual video was online. Thanks, jess.
posted by Curious Artificer at 7:49 PM on March 12, 2014

posted by rtha at 8:03 PM on March 12, 2014

Yeah the full video is 40-ish minutes long but this give you ... um ... a taste of the heath hen.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was going to post "wow" but rtha beat me to it. Amazing that they found the film and were able to digitize it and show it. Very cool.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:12 PM on March 12, 2014

I must now inform my bird-nerd friends about this!
posted by rmd1023 at 8:20 PM on March 12, 2014

Watching extinct animals on film makes me feel we are edging closer to our dystopian future, or, perhaps, that have already entered it.
posted by mrhappy at 8:26 PM on March 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Watching extinct animals on film makes me feel we are edging closer to our dystopian future, or, perhaps, that have already entered it.

The maddening part is we could leave it, but choose not to.

Very sad, thank you for the informative link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:41 PM on March 12, 2014

Lord God, what a hen.

Animals don't go extinct suddenly, they become increasingly rare, and rare things have higher value, which makes them more sought after and more likely to go extinct. Rhino horns worth more than solid gold are a good example. Back in the heyday of birding with a gun instead of a camera, collectors drove up prices for rare species, supply and demand. Lord Rothschild, one of the richest people in the world, had over 300,000 bird specimens the largest collection in the world. If there was only 1 of something left you can bet he or someone would have paid anything for it.
posted by stbalbach at 9:47 PM on March 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I wish we could have nice things.
posted by The Confessor at 10:01 PM on March 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

What a beautiful animal. Chilling to see the Fisheries and Game Division vignette with a hunter and an eager hound shown in a movie shot 14 years before extinction.
And how comforting that we have so much more footage of species that are going to be extinct in the coming years.
posted by hat_eater at 12:29 AM on March 13, 2014

posted by jquinby at 3:54 AM on March 13, 2014

This is a great candidate for a species to bring back via cloning from preserved specimens. It's related enough to existing birds to incubate well outside the host, and it's small enough to handle and possibly be reintroduced to native grasslands.

Plus, that mating dance is just cool. I'd love to see some of these in a local nature center.
posted by EinAtlanta at 5:08 AM on March 13, 2014

This made me cry.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:10 AM on March 13, 2014

(Why not heath hen for dinner? Prior to ready ice and refrigeration, I wouldn't been keen on lobster. A heath-dwelling bird would eat bugs and berries and other tasty-meat building foods, I'd think. )
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:13 AM on March 13, 2014

Just amazing. I love their weird neck feathers!

The Mountain Goats have a song about this very topic: Deuteronomy 2:10. (Warning: Song is very sad and may induce spontaneous lacrimation.) Each verse is about a distinct last animal of its kind: Tasmanian tiger, dodo, golden toad.
posted by divined by radio at 7:58 AM on March 13, 2014

The Heath Hen has an especially sad extinction story. It was one of the first species that was attempted to be saved in the US. And was almost the first success story. But unfortunately one of the breeding colonies suffered a severe fire that killed all of the birds, and the other colony suffered other tragedies that left only males.

I was really happy to see this video and I also think this should be one of the first targets if we want to bring a species back from extinction (I mean how expensive could it be to buy up suitable habitat in Martha's Vineyard?)
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:39 PM on March 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wow indeed. Thanks for posting this, jessamyn.
posted by homunculus at 7:00 PM on March 13, 2014

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