Friday, March 6, 2009


A continuing study in animals lost forever...

Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido)

The Heath Hen was the 1st endangered bird that post-European settlement Americans made a concerted effort to save from extinction. Ultimately, they failed. The last birds on the Mainland U.S. were gone by 1870, and the last of the species died on Martha's Vineyard in 1932. A couple of centuries of over-hunting for meat and several unforeseen calamities during the years of conservation brought their numbers too low to recover.

This illustration depicts males calling and displaying their cheek pouches and ear plumes, much as the other species of Prairie Chicken in the U.S. do. They would gather at leks, areas where multiple males display for prospective mates.

They were actually quite common in the Colonial Era, and were commonly eaten until conservation measures were taken in the early 20th Century. Heathies were considered poor quality meat, but were readily available in their range from New England to Virginia.

A view of the erected ear plumes and orange cheek patches (which would be inflated during display).

During the years of conservation on Martha's Vineyard, disasters such as intense wildfires, poachers, severe weather, and inexplicable increases in Goshawks befell the birds in their preserves.

There is still some discussion as to whether the Heath Hen should be considered a distinct species or a subspecies of one of the other 2 species, the Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens.

Kona Grosbeak or Kona Finch (Chloridops kona)

The Kona Finch is a bird that was not well known by people. There is only one written observation of the bird's habits, by naturalist Scott Barchard Wilson in the early 1890's, and the native people of the Kona Coast of Hawaii Island weren't familiar with them at all. They seemed to be already fairly rare, when Europeans first encountered them, and their elusive habits in the mountainous terrain in the area didn't help. No one is really sure why they went extinct. The last one was seen in 1894.

Kona Finches had thick cracking beaks, to aid in opening the heavy seeds they ate. Wilson's description of the bird was of a fairly sluggish inactive animal, that seldom sang.

There exist no photos, nor well preserved mounts of the birds. Can you spot what's wrong with this picture? Hint, read the above picture caption. This artist was probably confusing the bird with one mentioned in the next caption.

The Kona and 2 other closely related birds in the Kona Coast area, the Greater Koa and Lesser Koa Finch, went extinct in the 1890's from unknown causes. The Kona Grosbeak was the smallest of the 3.

Greater Koa Finch (Rhodacanthis palmeri), last seen 1896, sometimes indulged in caterpillars, as well as their usual diet of seeds. This was the noisiest of the 3 birds. They fed mostly on the seeds of Koa trees, thus the name. Notice the sexual dimorphism, the adult males having reddish plumage.

Lesser Koa Finch (Rhodacanthis flaviceps), last seen 1891, was in habit quite like the Greater Koa Finch, only a bit smaller and not as sexually dimorphic.

Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius)

The Labrador is the only DUCK to go extinct in, and the first BIRD known to go extinct in North America since European settlement. The causes for the loss of this animal are not well understood, and probably fairly complex. The Last one was seen in 1858 in NY State.

The Labrador Duck was often referred to as the "Skunk Duck", because of its coloration. They were also referred to as the "Pied Duck", as were 2 other birds off of the NE U.S. and Atlantic Canada, which makes historical investigations of the bird difficult.

The female was less dramatically colored.

The shovel like bill was well formed for dislodging and seizing shellfish (Bivalves, like muscles and clams), which were the main part of its diet. Its believed that the dramatic decline in North Atlantic shellfish populations in the mid 1800's (due to over-harvesting by humans) was a major cause contributing to extinction.

Sad museum specimens are the only way you'll ever see one in person.

Because of their foul taste and speed of putrification of the flesh, meat seeking and recreational hunters didn't often go after them.

Another possible source of the species decline may have been hunting for the millinery trade, or the trade in feathers for the lady's hat industry.

The eggs, as well, were sought after, and may have been over-harvested, leading to decline.

Because the Labrador went extinct before much scientific study of the species could occur, little is known of its habits and breeding ecology.

Another of John James Audubon's studies of North American birds, as with most of his beautiful plates, these were rendered from birds he shot, then painted , often in location in the wild.

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