Once There Were Billions: Heath Hen

To help tell the story of four extinct bird species, BHL and the Smithsonian Libraries co-curated an exhibition–Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America–at the National Museum of Natural History.  The exhibit runs through October 2015 and provides insights into the fragile connections between species and their environment.  If you’re not in the area, you can still enjoy the online exhibit or browse digital versions of the select exhibit books in BHL. You can also follow along here on the BHL blog where we’re showcasing each of the four species, starting with the Great Auk and the Carolina Parakeet.  This week, we’re highlighting the Heath Hen.

Heath Hen: Early Signs of Trouble

During colonial times, Heath Hens (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) flourished among the heathland barrens of coastal North America from Maine to Virginia. Tasty and easy to kill, they were popular among early settler, and their numbers quickly declined from overhunting, habitat loss, and disease.

In 1791, the New York State legislature introduced a bill calling for the preservation of Heath Hens and other game, but it couldn’t be enforced.  After the birds disappeared from the mainland, a Heath Hen sanctuary was established on Martha’s Vineyard in 1908. The sanctuary was home to the entire Heath Hen population–50 birds in all. By 1915, they numbered 2,000. But when a fire destroyed the sanctuary’s habitat in 1916, their numbers dwindled. The last one died in 1932.

Extinctions are often most visible to us when they affect a highly visible species in our communities, especially if there are repercussions for our food sources or income. But extinctions can also have far-reaching impacts that may not be as immediately visible.

Understanding Biodiversity and Supporting Research
One way to foster a better understanding of biodiversity and its significance is to support organizations like the Biodiversity Heritage Library. BHL is a global project that is changing the way research is done, by digitizing and providing open access to biodiversity literature.  BHL makes more than 44 million pages and over 90,000 scientific illustrations–of animals and plants, living and extinct–freely available to scientists and others around the world. BHL relies on donations from individuals to support scanning of the biodiversity literature held in some of the world’s most renowned natural history and botanical libraries. To learn more about how your donation supports the continued growth of BHL, please visit http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs181/1103622715135/archive/1115465985290.html.  We hope you’ll consider making a donation today!

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Carolyn Sheffield served as the BHL Program Manager from July 2013 - February 2019. She is currently the Associate Director of Library Technology and Digital Strategies at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She holds a Masters of Library Science from the University of Maryland.