Yesterday, Thanksgiving was celebrated in the United States.
We base this holiday on the harvest celebration and smörgåsbord that the English Separatists (which we Americans have always called “Pilgrims”) put on after their first successful summer in the New World.
The “Pilgrims” ate lots of different things in their 1621 Thanksgiving feast that they shared with the Wampanoag people, who had shared food with them during that first winter. Prominent among them were the “wild Turkies” that were easily dispatched. In every account of the feast that I have read, there is a mention of wild fowl, with waterfowl and turkeys getting special mention.
William Bradford specifically mentions the “great store of wild turkeys” that were served in the event in Of Plymouth Plantation:
Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
Because the turkeys were so prominent in that meal, Thanksgiving in the US always features a turkey as the main course. Never mind that the turkey that most of eat is as different from the Eastern wild turkey that the “Pilgrims” and the Wampanoag ate as the St. Bernard is from the coyote.
It is our tradition– part of our national lore. Of course, before turkeys became mass produced, pork featured more prominently as the main course. Hogs were ubiquitous, and November was always the traditional hog butchering month. Mass-production of big-breasted domestic turkeys has meant that the turkey will be synonymous with Thanksgiving.
But perhaps our view of the turkey and Thanksgiving are a bit distorted. While it is certainly true that wild turkey was very common and very easily killed in the first days of English colonization of what became New England, but it did not take long for their numbers to become rapidly depleted. English naturalist John Josselyn wrote in 1672 that the “Turkie” was nearly gone from New England, and that it had been 30 years since he had seen any wild turkeys. If one does the math, the wild turkey went from being extremely common to very rare in New England within twenty years of the First Thanksgiving.
If one also reads Josselyn’s account carefully, wild turkeys had an interesting relationship with the New England Indians. The animals lived in settlements, coming and going as they please and were the original free-range poultry. They lived near their houses as tame as any English turkey.
That behavior is very different from modern wild turkeys, which are very wary of our species. They are very hard to hunt even when one illegally baits them in with corn. After all, these wild turkeys have been selected from that wild population in the same way wolves have. Only the most wary birds survived our unscrupulous and profligate depredations. At one point, only 30,000 wild turkeys remained,most of them hiding our in remote areas, where market hunters couldn’t blast them out of trees, and all the birds that exist now are descended from these extremely wary individuals.
But the story of the turkey in New England is bit ephemeral.
And while it’s true that the original European settlers of New England and the East Coast did enjoy a great bounty of turkeys, it is another bird that was likely consumed in that first Thanksgiving that would have a much longer-lasted impact upon the diet and lifestyle of those first Europeans to colonize our continent.
It is because of the importance of this bird to so many of the first colonists that we should consider its role in our history more carefully. Perhaps it deserves the title of the founding bird of our country. Our founding feather, if you will.
It is the bird poorly depicted at the top of this post and the subject of my early query.
It no longer exists in any form on the East Coast, but at the time of settlement it was unbelievably common from the New Hampshire coast to the northern parts of Virginia.
I am referring to the heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido). In the early accounts, this bird is called a grouse or a partridge. Unfortunately, those terms have also historically referred to the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), and that common name makes it difficult to tell which species the writer is actually referring to.
The heath hen was very common on the east coast. Ruffed grouse tend be found a bit more inland, but they vaguely look a like. The heath hen was called a partridge by those first settlers, and when they encountered the ruffed grouse as they came inland, they likely gave it the same name. That is most likely why the ruffed grouse is called a partridge in so many part of the US.
The heath hen was found in the “heaths” that were found adjacent to the coast. “Heath” is an archaic term for what we now call pine barrens or pinelands.
In those pine barrens were a vast multitude of grouse that were so easily killed that they made up a definite staple of the colonists’ diet. They were commonly killed to feed hireed servants, slaves, and those held in indenture. They were a major source of protein, and when other game species became rare and imported livestock proved less than hardy, they could always turn to the little heath hens for meat. Without game birds, it would have been harder for Europeans to settle the East Coast, and it is from those settlements that our nation was eventually founded.
Now, these birds were not adapted to living in forests. The pinelands on which they lived were subject to regular fires, which left large open tracts of land for the birds. When this area became colonized, fires were no longer allowed to burn out of control. Unable to adapt to the lack of open tracts within the pinelands, the birds started to become rare. When European man stopped allowing fires to burn, the heath hen lost its prime habitat. The fact that they were hunted so extensively for food just compounded their problems.
But unlike the turkey, their numbers didn’t drop as precipitously. Their existence as common food source lasted at least through the first century of colonization. The birds became rare in New York in the late eighteenth century, and in 1791, the New York legislature tried to offer them legal protection– the first game law in the country’s history.
However, they were still common enough through most of their range to be hunted for food until the beginning of the nineteenth century, but by 1840’s, the birds became quite rare. It is believed that they were entirely extinct on the mainland by 1870. A relict population of 300 birds remained on Martha’s Vineyard, but these were in trouble. The birds were still occasionally poached, and a predation from the island’s feral cats was taking its upon them.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, those 300 birds had become 70. After setting up a heath hen preserve in 1908, the birds did recover. By the middle of the 1910’s, the were an estimated 2,000 heath hens on Martha’s Vineyard.
I see your eyebrows going up. Whenever you start with such a low founding population, genetic diversity issues can’t be far off. Because this was an island population, it was not as adapted to predation, and when goshawks suddenly began to colonize Martha’s Vineyard, the heath hens didn’t exactly know what to do. Then blackhead disease hit. Perhaps the lack of diversity in the Martha’s Vineyard heath hen MHC made them susceptible to the disease, or perhaps because they were an island population, they had never been exposed to the disease at all and were as highly susceptible to the disease as Native Americans were to small pox. Because chickens were found on Martha’s Vineyard for centuries before the big heath hen epidemic, it seems that the lack of diversity of MHC genes is the more plausible theory.
Whatever it was, only 600 heath hens remained on Martha’s Vineyard by 1920. For some reason, perhaps related to their low genetic diversity, clutch after clutch began to produce a very high ratio of roosters to hens. Within just a few years, the number of heath hens dropped precipitously, and because of the weird sex ratio in the clutches, the majority of the remaining birds were male. In 1927, only a dozen birds remained, and only two were female. Then, in 1928, only a single male remained. He was last seen in 1932, and when he died, the whole species became extinct.
Or so I read as a child.
I had no real concept of what a heath hen was.
I’m an Easterner, and I vaguely remember hearing about a bird called a prairie chicken on a Marty Stouffer nature documentary.
I did not connect prairie chickens and the heath hen in my mind.
However, when I put the Linnaean name for the extinct heath hen, I bet you noticed that it included a subspecies name. The reason why I wrote that subspecies name is that the heath hen is now classified as a subspecies of greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), which although not as common as it once was, is still extant.
Some debate on this taxonomy still exists, because in the genus Tympanuchus, there are four extant species: the aforementioned greater prairie chicken, the lesser prairie chicken (T. pallidicinctus) , and the sharp-tailed grouse (T. phasianellus). They are all genetically and morphologically distinct, but they are not that different genetically. One argument goes that if the lesser prairie chicken is different enough from greater prairie chicken to be considered a separate species, then the heath hen was a distinct species, because it was somewhat genetically distinct from the greater prairie chicken and was adapted to live in a very different part of the country.
People have brought prairie chickens to the east and released them, and they have failed to thrive. It has been suggested that the prairie chickens can’t handle our climate. However, it is more likely that they can’t handle living in an area that has a mixture of cultivation and dense forests, which is exactly what most of the land in the East became.
However, the consensus now is that the heath was the East Coast subspecies of the greater prairie chicken.
Which means that it didn’t go extinct.
Only the subspecies that lived on the East Coast did.
I have thought about this story a bit as I’ve been researching endangered species conservation. Perhaps those conservationists on Martha’s Vineyard could have imported some greater prairie chickens from the West to augment their relict population of heath hens. It would have been worth a shot, and it probably would have been the only thing that would have saved them.
However, because the pinelands of the East Coast no longer are allowed to exist as they did before colonization, it is probably unlikely that the birds would have survived anyway. Because fire kept open large tracts of land in the heaths, these prairie birds were able to live in the East. The nearest population of greater prairie chicken to the heath hen was in western Ohio, where the tall grass prairie ecosystem began.
The heath hen couldn’t survive in a place that was both densely forested and intensively cultivated. Like all prairie chickens, it needs expanses of open land that are not intensely farmed. Those places are not that common anywhere in the East.
All prairie chickens are in trouble. Their numbers have dropped rather dramatically since settlement.. These birds do not thrive in areas that are intensively cultivated. They require unspoiled prairies to thrive, and those areas are simply not that common anywhere.
The subspecies of greater prairie chicken that was our founding bird has gone extinct, and if we are not a bit more careful, the other greater prairie chickens and their lesser prairie chicken cousins might follow them.
Of course, the turkey’s story wound up being quite different. Although reduced to tiny relict populations within the first decades of colonization on the East Coast, the wild turkey has made a dramatic comeback. Today, eastern wild turkeys can be found throughout New England, but they are still uncommon in the northern parts of the region (and probably always were). Currently, the population of wild turkeys is estimated to be over 7 million birds. The eastern subspecies has essentially been restored to all of its native range, which includes parts of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and a bit of Manitoba.
They aren’t quasi-domesticated, though. Although there are some wild turkeys that come into towns, they are not nearly as tame as the ones Josselyn described. Centuries of profligate hunting practices have made them wary. Paranoia is now part of their DNA.
The turkey was able to be saved in part because it was so symbolic. Benjamin Franklin once satirically argued that the wild turkey should be our national bird, which turkey conservationist instantly picked up to help their cause. And it doesn’t bug me in the least that they did that.
However, the prairie chicken folks haven’t been quite as successful at capturing the imaginations of the American public. If only they would use the story of the heath hen to their advantage to talk about the importance of these unique birds to our nation’s history, we might be able to have another native game bird success story.
If we believe we are saving our founding bird by preserving prairie chickens, then we will have the support necessary to preserve them for generations to come.
Love America, save the prairie chickens.
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