Reports From the Field: A Blog Reader Visits the Bird

Ms. Jeannie was thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to hear from blog reader, Victoria who set out to visit the Heath Hen memorial, one of the five sculptures in the Lost Bird Project collection.  The Hen now permanently resides in the Manuel F. Correllus State Park on Martha’s Vineyard, MA, where the last survivor of the breed, known as Booming Ben was spotted in the 1930’s.

Here’s Victoria’s first sighting…

All photos courtesy of Victoria at Vintagiality.

All photos courtesy of Victoria at Vintagiality.

According to her it is a bit tricky to find the sculpture. So if you go and visit yourself, here is her helpful advice…

“It took forever to find him as there are no markings of any kind besides the plaque at the entrance gate to the State forest and it only talks about the heath hen in general.  I searched for directions for a long time and all I found was some local article from years ago that said it was a 5-10 minute walk from either gate 18 or 19 of the forest.”

This is the plaque at the forest entrance that Victoria referred to. In addition to the historical information, it seems people have left behind their own bird relics at the marker, which Ms. Jeannie thinks is sort of fitting.  Since the sculpture acts as not only a piece of art but also a memorial tribute to the extinction of a species, this is not unlike people putting flowers or candles or other such relics on gravesites to commemorate what was lost.

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This is what the plaque says…

HEATH HEN – Tympanuchus Cupido Cupido

The sole remaining heath hen in the world was seen for the last time near this spot on March 11, 1932; this eastern race of the greater prairie chicken was declared extinct in 1933. During the mating season, the males made a loud “booming” sound by inflating the orange air sacs on their necks, a sound that could be heard as far as one mile away. A staple in the early colonists’ diet, the heath hen was more important than the wild turkey to the survival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in the hard winter of 1620-1621. Despite the passage of various protective laws, by 1845 the only birds left were on Martha’s Vineyard, having once been widespread from coastal New England south at least to Maryland.  In 1908, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts set aside 600 acres here as a heath hen reservation. Additional land was added later, until the reservation totaled nearly 5,000 acres, most of which ultimately became the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. The heath hen thrived on the reservation, it’s numbers rising from about 50 in 1908 to about 2,000 in early 1916. But in May 1916, a great fire swept the reservation, destroying many nesting females and their eggs, reducing the population to about 150. Primarily due to inbreeding, disease and predation, despite efforts to protect and propagate the bird, its numbers slowly dwindled to 28 in 1923, about 30 in 1927, and only 3 in 1928. The last bird, known as “Booming Ben” lived alone from 1929 to 1932.

To give you some visual perspective this is what heath hens looked like in the wild…

Photograph of a Heath Hen on Martha's Vineyard taken in 1909.

Photograph of a Heath Hen on Martha’s Vineyard taken in 1909.

This next illustration gives you a sense of their colors. The orange bulb at their breast is the air sac that they inflate during mating season. Pretty flamboyant! No wonder the lady hens liked them:)

Heath Hen. Photo courtesy of nhptv.org

Heath Hen. Photo courtesy of nhptv.org

And here is the Heath Hen memorial on the day Victoria went to visit him…

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Victoria also provided this insight…

“I would love to say that it was an impactful sight but he really looked so small from a distance when I first noticed him. He was smaller than I expected and just sat calmly perched on the side of the path. Many people had never even realized he was there all these years walking by. It was very interesting to find out that the entire State forest was actually originally called the Heath Hen Reserve and only later took the name of its long term superintendent which virtually caused the heath hen to be forgotten.”

If you missed Ms. Jeannie’s previous post about this amazing bird art, the Heath Hen sculpture was created by  artist, Todd McGrain as part of his Lost Bird Project. You can read more about his work here.  In the documentary that was recently released about the project, you can follow along as Todd chooses the exact resting spot for each of his birds. Using both historical information and artistic intuition as placement guides, he took great care in deciding why each sculpture should be placed in the exact spot that it was.

So it doesn’t really come as a surprise to Ms. Jeannie, after hearing from Victoria, that the Heath Hen should be in a location within the state park that lacked any sense of showmanship or fanfare. According to the documentary, Todd wanted each bird to not only be a memorial to what we have lost as a country but also a teaching platform that could draw surprise, sympathy and inspiration to all who viewed it – but in a natural way – a walk in the intimate woods, so to say, that wasn’t preachy or guided.

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Ultimately, the project aims to educate and draw awareness –  to appreciate our natural surroundings, to notice what occurs in our everyday environment and to hopefully take a little bit more care with our natural world so that in 100 years we do not see other animals – ones that are so prevalent today like deer and foxes and geese – on the extinction list in the future.

A great big thank you to Victoria for sharing her road trip with us in both thoughts and pictures. Stop by and visit her Etsy shop here. Learn more about the lost bird project here. 

12 thoughts on “Reports From the Field: A Blog Reader Visits the Bird

  1. The real story here is that the Sculpture is hard to find. Clearly a bit easier than actually finding a real one. Well written. Thank you.

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    • Definitely, my dear! I bet our field reporter noticed more along the way than she ever would have had the statue been placed near a gate entrance or in the parking lot or at the information center. Heath hens were wanderers so it is only fitting that their admirers should be too:) Cheers to Booming Ben!

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