The Last Heath Hen
by David Challinor (January 2007)
It is rare for someone to see the last wild animal of a rapidly disappearing population, yet we do know of one such instance.
James Green on March 11, 1932, watched a heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido) scurry into some low bushes on his farm near West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, Massuchusetts.
No wild one was ever seen again.
Heath is an Old World term for an extended, uncultivated open space covered with herbage and low bushes. The colonial landscape of the early 18th century from Massachusetts to the Carolinas undoubtedly had heaths large enough to sustain an enormous population of heath hens.
This bird was so plentiful that it was a staple food for indentured laborers in coastal New England.
In winter, when the birds fed on acorns and acidic berries, their meat tasted bitter; in summer they were somewhat more palatable.
The servants actually sought in their labor contracts to limit their having to eat heath hen to only two days a week instead of daily. …
A remarkable illustration of this ability to rapidly occupy a new prairie is occurring on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
A landowner converted a small portion (230 acres) of his large tract, named Chino Farms, to a grassland reserve in the fall of 1998 when the last crops of corn and soybeans were harvested and the area was left fallow.
The following spring, warm-season grasses and prairie forbs (small leafy dicotyledonous plants) were planted and researchers marked out experimental plots.
Having just finished year eight of a long-term ecological study at this farm, scientists from the University of Maryland have obtained some truly amazing results from this conversion of cropland to prairie.
One of the first birds to occupy this new land was the grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum australis).
This secretive bird nests on the ground and gets its name from its call rather than its penchant for grasshoppers.
As soon as the prairie plants sprouted, these sparrows started nesting. Where had they come from?
It seemed as though they had just been waiting in isolated patches of meadow for an ideal place to settle.
Scientists grabbed the chance to study this elusive species and in the process learned that ideal nest sites always had a tall stem nearby from which the male could sing and thus defend his territory.
When the scientists scattered artificial perches around the study plots, the number of nesting pairs increased dramatically.
For years, landowners along the Eastern Seaboard have used a similar procedure to attract nesting osprey.
They erected nesting platforms atop tall, stout poles but found that one of the pair preferred to perch on an adjacent snag before bringing a fish to the nest. The snag was soon added.
Not only did grasshopper sparrows return to this newly restored open grassland, but when low-lying hollows in the tract filled with rainwater, spadefoot toads (Scaphiopus spp.) turned up to breed.
These toads spend most of their lives underground and are adept at digging—hence their name.
This prairie animal must be ready to breed whenever there is enough rainfall to fill a large puddle.
When that occurs, they all emerge on the surface and spawn almost immediately. The eggs hatch after only two days.
The tadpoles then feed on their yoke supply for another day while their mouths develop to ingest food, first mostly algae and planktonic organisms, then later dead tadpoles that did not metamorphose quickly enough to survive.
I watched these extraordinary amphibians court and spawn on my cotton farm in west Texas within less than an hour after a heavy thunderstorm.
I had always thought of them as central plains prairie and desert animal and was surprised when my colleague Doug Gill of the University of Maryland reported their presence on the recently established Eastern Shore prairie.
Eastern spade-foot toads (Scaphiopus holbrookii) still persist in relict populations in the sandy undisturbed openlands of the Coastal Plains from Long Island to Florida, reminiscent of pre-colonial times.