The Heath Hen (about 17 inches) was a small subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido). This chicken-shaped bird was characterized by a mottled brown body, short tail, and short, rounded wings. Males possessed yellow eyebrows, yellow inflatable throat-sacks, and stiff neck feathers called “pinnae.” Females were smaller and duller, possessing much shorter pinnae and lacking a throat sac. Before it became extinct, the Heath Hen was found along the Atlantic coast of the eastern United States from Massachusetts south to Virginia. This subspecies was separated geographically from other Greater Prairie-Chicken populations, which today are restricted to a few areas on the Great Plains but historically occurred widely in the central United States west of the Appalachian Mountains. Unfortunately, a combination of overhunting and habitat loss caused this subspecies’ numbers to plummet. At the time of its extinction in 1932, the Heath Hen had died out on mainland North America, and was found only on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Heath Hens were found in open woodland habitats across its range. This subspecies was particularly associated with the “pine barren” habitat type, which is characterized by sandy soils, short pine trees, and sparse groundcover of grasses and low shrubs. These woodland habitats are somewhat more vegetated than the dry grassland habitats inhabited by modern Greater Prairie-Chicken populations, but both provide sufficient quantities of insects, seeds, and other plant foods to feed these birds and other similar land fowl. In the early-1800s, when this subspecies was still found on the mainland, these birds would have been most visible while foraging for food in clearing, both on the ground and below bushes and shrubs. During the breeding season, males would defend territories, called “leks,” against male intruders while inflating their throat sacks and erecting their pinnae as a courtship display, much as Greater Prairie-Chickens do today. Heath Hens were primarily active during the day.
Extinct. One specimen collected in this region April 10, 1846.
Collected By: Alex Skinner
Locality: Custis Spring Marsh, VA Near Washington DC
Sex: Not recorded
Catalog ID: 103373
Note that the date on the label on this exhibit suggests that only one bird was collected in this area and that was in 1846. The specimen on display actually was collected almost 40 years later, but the occurrence of this bird in this area must have been extremely rare.