Obscuring the heath hen: memory and the nature of memorials

This past summer, artist Todd McGrain placed a sculpture on Martha’s Vineyard in memory of the extinct heath hen. His statue stands along a bike path in the former reserve meant to save the dwindling species, now known as Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. McGrain’s installment looks smooth and graceful as it shines darkly against the muted colors of the New England forest. Its beak is opened slightly, as if crying out for its lost companions.

McGrain's memorial to the extinct heath hen, part of his Lost Birds project.

Heath hen once occupied barrens from New Hampshire to Virginia and some believe it was heath hen—not turkey—that Pilgrims consumed at the first Thanksgiving dinner, as they were a cheap and easy food source. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, the hens became increasingly rare and, by 1870, were completely gone from the American mainland. Only on the Massachusetts island Martha’s Vineyard did the heath hen remain.

The population diminished quickly, however, from 300 to less than 100 individuals by the turn of the twentieth century. Only then did the island place a ban on hunting. In 1908, the same year Theodore Roosevelt announced American bison were nearing extinction, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard created the Heath Hen Reserve. Instead of hunting the bird, people now made pilgrimages simply to observe them.

Yet even as tourist attraction, the heath hen of Martha’s Vineyard could not hold on. They suffered from fire, weather, disease, predators, and inbreeding. Despite human intervention, there were a mere dozen birds in 1927; only two were female. The next year, the females were gone. By the end of that year, only one male remained. Booming Ben, as he was named, was the last of his kind. Birders flocked to see this lone male, hoping to catch a glimpse before he too disappeared. Sighting this creature who could not reproduce, had no companions, and whom one would likely never see again, must have been a sublime moment of wildlife observation. Booming Ben observers literally watched the original wildness of America pass before their eyes. Ben was last seen on March 11, 1932. In 1933, heath hen were officially declared extinct.

Though the people of Martha’s Vineyard were unable to save the heath hen, residents today continue to find a sense of identity in the bird. Rare as it was, the community once prided itself on its ability to retain a population, and the heath hen remains a part of their local identity—so much so, in fact, that they talk of reintroduction. Of course it is impossible to re-introduce the heath hen species itself, as it no longer exists. But some believe introducing a flock of greater prairie chicken is a near-enough match. Not quite a reintroduction, the plan is, rather, an ecological memorial.

Tim Simmons, from the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program says the (re)introduction is not an attempt to get back to an original nature, but a way to “reintroduce processes.” The greater prairie chicken would be an umbrella species that would help restore the landscape to what it was in historical memory. The chicken is not a heath hen, but its ecological role is similar. Thus, what the (re)introduction would produce is an historic landscape; it is not restoring a species but reproducing a place considered part of the region’s natural heritage.

Historian Tom Dunlop suggests the (re)introduction would add another rare species to Martha’s Vineyard (which has several), creating a unique New England landscape for nature-seeking tourists. This perspective would seem to restore the island’s sense of itself as a draw for wildlife tourists, as it was over the heath hen’s declining years. Greater prairie chicken, themselves growing increasingly rare, would represent a pairing of natural and cultural heritage that has more to do with human uses of the landscape than the extinction of one species. The heath hen itself gets lost in the shuffle.

Since the original (re)introduction discussions began more than ten years ago, some ecologists admit the greater prairie chicken plan has problems. As it turns out, greater prairie chickens are not so closely related, genetically, to heath hen. Ecologists have grown increasingly skeptical of what one said would resemble a “museum exhibit of landscapes” more than a modern ecological restoration. Another was pushed to question: “What really is a heath hen?” Though he asked this from a biological standpoint, when turned onto culture, the question takes on a different significance. Is it a specific biological species? A generic chicken-like bird? Or a character in history?

Plaque commemorating the lost species at Correllus State Forest.

It is all these things. And in its memory, each brings the heath hen back to life. The question of what really is a heath hen underlines our memories of and memorials to the extinct species. Booming Ben is remembered on the bronze plaque installed in the state forest, but his body is not preserved (as is Martha‘s, the last of the passenger pigeons). Nor does he have a sculpture representing his individual identity: the hens depicted on the plaque are generic specimens.

Plans to memorialize heath hen with prairie chickens obscure the lost birds even further. While the plaque admits the birds are gone, describing in detail how they disappeared, (re)introduction seems an act of denial. Such plans care not for the fact of extinction. They are statements about place. Bringing in the threatened prairie chicken creates a blurred watercolor version of an historical landscape, defines Martha’s Vineyard as a sort of Noah’s Ark for endangered poultry, and installs a living landscape of loss.

Beyond the stark history of the plaque and the denial of (re)introduction stands McGrain’s statue, larger than life and silent, yet telling a more poignant story of loss. McGrain’s representation stands in place of the real thing not because it has to, but because the animal itself has become an abstraction.

As the case of the extinct heath hen reveals, we have no standard cultural response to losing the last of a species. McGrain’s statue is a beginning, a recognition, that humans mourn animals—and not just their pets—but an entire species.

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

Resources & References:

“An Extinct Bird has comeback hopes,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine (May – June 1999).

Barrow, Mark. A Passion for Birds (Princeton University Press 2000) and Nature’s Ghosts (University of Chicago 2009).

Cokinos, Christopher. Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds (Tarcher 2009).

Dunlop, Tom. “Birds of a Very Different Feather,” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine  (September – October 2004).

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Memorializing extinction: monuments to the passenger pigeon

“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.”  – Aldo Leopold

Martha on display in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Just over one hundred years ago, a bird that no longer exists flocked in such great numbers they blocked the sun turning day into night. The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a tale often told by historians of nature. It is a parable of wasted American abundance. Felled for food and feathers, wasted by sport hunters and nest-robbers, these pigeons, remarkable only for the immensity of their migration, existed as a handful of individuals in zoological parks.

Still, some optimists kept looking. They scanned the skies and wandered hopefully through former nesting grounds. In 1909, the American Ornithologists’ Union launched a comprehensive hunt, offering prizes of over $2000 to anyone who located passenger pigeon nests or nesting sites. Though the contest continued through 1912, no sightings reported held any credible evidence of their existence.

Despite such denial of loss, the remaining individuals became living (and then stuffed) memorials to their species. The last living passenger pigeon spent her days at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, after the nation’s first lady. When her mate, George, passed in 1910, she lived another four years as an unlikely and unfortunate celebrity. Her pagoda cage labeled her the last of her kind. She was, according to Christopher Cokinos who chronicles avian exintctions in Hope is the Thing with Feathers, the first endangered species specimen to garner such attention.

A statue likeness of Martha outside her pagoda at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of Roadside America.

When Martha died on September 1, 1914, the zoo immediately iced her body and shipped her to the Smithsonian. At the pagoda where people once pilgrimaged to see the last of a species, stands a memorial. A statue remembers Martha herself near the building’s entrance. Inside, an exhibit tells the story of passenger pigeon extinction and has several stuffed birds on display. The contrast of living animals outside and dead inside is unusual for a zoo and is a powerful juxtaposition.

At the Smithsonian, Martha’s body was preserved and then put on display. In the halls of the U.S. National Museum, Martha’s body served as a reminder and a warning against the excesses of American culture. Though Martha is no longer on display, her body still lies in the Smithsonian’s collections, at the National Museum of Natural History, underlining her importance in the stories Americans tell about themselves.

Another memorial lies far from the site of Martha’s demise, in the woods of Wisconsin where it is thought an Ohio boy with a BB gun shot the last wild passenger pigeon. There, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology installed a bronze plaque on an oak tree engraved with the following words: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”

When the plaque was dedicated in 1947, naturalist and nature-writer Aldo Leopold spoke eloquently of the event’s significance. “We meet here to commemorate the death of a species,” he began. “This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” Leopold painted a pastoral picture of the landscape with its now-extinct wildlife and called attention to its place in that environment. Its disappearance changed a visual marker of the seasons. Not only was a bird species lost, but a rhythm, an aesthetic.

A plaque honoring the pigeon and proclaiming the avarice of man in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park. Courtesy Wisconsin State Parks.

But why, Leopold asked, do we mourn the loss of a species? “Perhaps, we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.” More poignantly, Leopold wondered how lost species could be remembered: “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.”

Indeed, Martha in the museum, her pagoda, the statue of her likeness, keeps the passenger pigeon alive. But no longer are they signals of seasons; they stand as harbingers of extinction. They warn of the ability of human activities to be both destructive and protective. In embodying the pigeon with such meanings, we tell an emotional history of lost abundance. But Leopold warned of the hubris of telling pointed parables: “We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon.” But, he continued, it was people just like us who brought about the death of this species. They believed that is was “more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true.” Leopold concluded: “This then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.”

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

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Looking prehistoric: observations on rhinos and extinction

Is the rhinoceros a relic of the past? (Petroglyph in Namibia).

As rhinos grow increasingly threatened—in the wild and in museum halls—they become a symbol of all animals suffering possible extinction. But rhinos have long had such an image. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those who encountered rhinoceroses, saw them as prehistoric relics, and expressed a sense of inevitability to their extinction. Even as late as 1980, science writer Edward Ricciuti wrote: “The rhino is a zoological museum piece, a holdover from times long past, a loner that is unadaptable and rather stupid.”

People perceived the rhinoceros as unfit to survive in the modern era. “Like men of the old stone age,” wrote naturalist-hunter Herbert Lang in 1920, “with but few implements for defense or attack compared with the multitude of destructive weapons in our times, the rhinoceros seems to lag ages behind in the development of its various senses.” The rhinoceros’ inability to adapt to human technology, Lang wrote, leaves it “hopelessly doomed by modern firearms.” What now seems a tragic irony—hunters shooting an animal they recognized they were implicit in endangering—to them looked not like irony, but the inevitability of a thing called “progress.”

After killing his share of rhinoceroses, President-adventurer Theodore Roosevelt paused to observe one at rest. “Look at him,” reflected his son, Kermit, “standing there in the middle of the African plain, deep in prehistoric thought.” The elder Roosevelt agreed: “Indeed the rhinoceros does seem like a survival from the elder world that has vanished; he was in place in the Pliocene, he would not have been out of place in the Miocene, but nowadays he can only exist at all in regions that have lagged behind, while the rest of the world, for good or for evil, has gone forward.”

This sense of melancholy over a species whose numbers were indeed declining continues to exist today. While some activist groups employ more optimistic rhetoric, insisting endangered species can be saved, others look at species “on the brink” as having an inevitable end.

Are we already mourning the extinction of the Javan rhinoceros?

After the turn of the last century, wildlife biologists and educators at the Wildlife Conservation Society sat to discuss their future projects and funding needs. As they discussed their progress in saving species and habitats, they found themselves forced to admit that despite their best efforts, some species continued to struggle for survival. With tears in their eyes, leading conservationists, whose lifework is to save species, agreed that the Javan rhino population was beyond repair. Viewing its extinction as inevitable, they cut funding for its conservation.

Imagining scientists growing emotional about extinction conjures a strange mixture of humility and ego. They admit humans caused habitat loss or over-hunting, and that subsequent human efforts to undo that damage failed. Along with these contradictions of human agency, goes an essential feeling of loss.

The idea of extinction arouses something fundamental in human nature. We mourn loss. But when it comes to species extinction, what are we mourning? Is it the lives of the individual animals themselves? The suffering of a population? Or, is it an aesthetic of a nature we have always known?

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

[Portions here excerpted from my book, Rhinoceros (Reaktion 2008).]

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