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The Ivory Bill·Birds·Extinct Birds

Heath Hen, Tympanuchus cupido cupido

Heath hens foraging in grasslands
Heath hens were grouse that bred in open scrubby heathlands in the northeastern United States. They bred from late March to June, with peak breeding in April.

Heath hens were commonly found in scrubby heathlands and barrens, characterized by sandy soils and dominated by low-growing shrubs like huckleberry, bayberry, and scrub oak. These areas provided abundant seeds, leaves, and insects during the breeding season.

They foraged in open areas and along the edges of shrublands for seeds, buds, berries, and insects such as beetles and grasshoppers. They also fed on acorns and other nuts when available.

Heath hens had strong, stout bills adapted for crushing seeds and robust legs for scratching and digging in the soil. Their plumage provided camouflage against predators in their scrubby habitats.

Males performed “booming” by inflating air sacs on their necks, producing deep, resonant sounds to attract females. They displayed by puffing up their feathers, spreading their tails, and stomping their feet.

Nests were shallow depressions on the ground, lined with grass, leaves, and feathers, often hidden under shrubs or grasses. Females typically laid 6 to 12 eggs.

Females incubated the eggs for about 24-26 days. After hatching, the chicks were precocial and could leave the nest within hours. Initial diets for chicks included small insects and invertebrates, gradually shifting to seeds and plant matter.

Chicks learned to forage by following the adult female, who guided them to food sources and protected them from predators. As they developed, their diet expanded to include a wider variety of seeds, berries, and insects.

Chick fledging occurred at about 6-8 weeks, with continued guidance from the adult female. They gradually became more independent, refining their foraging skills and diet.

Heath hens remaine in their breeding territories year-round. They adapted to seasonal changes by varying their diet and foraging strategies.

Heath hens faced numerous threats, including habitat destruction, hunting, and predation. Conversion of their native heathlands to agriculture and development drastically reduced their habitat. Overhunting in the 19th century further decimated their populations. By the late 1800s, their range was limited to Martha’s Vineyard, where a small population persisted.

Efforts to protect the heath hen began in the early 20th century. The state of Massachusetts established a sanctuary on Martha’s Vineyard in 1908, implementing hunting bans and habitat management. Despite these efforts, a combination of disease, predation, harsh winters, and genetic issues contributed to their decline.

After the last confirmed sighting in 1932, people searched for surviving heath hens in remaining suitable habitats in the northeastern United States, particularly in coastal regions with scrubby vegetation. Conservationists and ornithologists hoped to find remnants of the population, but no conclusive evidence emerged.

Reported sightings occurred sporadically over the years, but none were verified. Searches continued into the mid-20th century, primarily driven by hope and anecdotal reports. Despite these efforts, no living heath hens were found, and the species is considered extinct.