In the cold and snowy early spring of 1926 or 1927, a filmmaker and at least two other men hiked into the scrubby barrens at the center of the Island to capture the courtship rituals of the heath hen for what would turn out to be the final time.
By that point, there were no birds left on the mainland, and it was clear that this last population of heath hens was disappearing on the Vineyard as well. No one knew whether there would be any females left for the males to woo the following springtime, and thus the urgency to record the strutting and booming extravaganzas of the amorous heath hens on film before the cavorting became pointless and vanished with the bird itself.
The last heath hen disappeared from the heart of the Island in 1932 and the species was declared extinct in the spring of 1933. But the movie of the Vineyard heath hens in the middle 1920s has been found, and as part of its Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project, the Gazette presents a complete sequence of the famous sexual fandangos of the lost bird on its website.
The movie came to the Gazette from Mark Madison, historian of the National Conservation Training Center Archives and Museum of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Shepherdstown, W.V. The Gazette sponsored the transfer of the film from a Betacam tape to a digital file at Video Express in Boston, and John Wilson of Edgartown, a television producer and director, edited it. (The Boston Globe ran a brief clip from another digital copy earlier this year.)
The blandishments of the heath hen were a riot of challenges to fellow males, and enticements to females, that entranced all who saw or heard them. “Birds these were not, but feathered goblins of curious shape dancing witch-wise on the green,” wrote Winthrop Packard in the Boston Transcript in 1912. “Their short tails were cocked way forward over their backs. Their black neck feathers moved stiffly out at various angles until they pointed like black horns directly over the crested heads of the creatures. They cackled and coughed, then whining [with] laughter, they puffed up their feathers and strutted, they danced off the ground with feet and wings, going a yard or two in the air. They ran swiftly this way and that, and they pranced to one another, minuet fashion.”
Filmmakers caught this avian romp from a teepee blind set up in what was then called the Heath Hen Reservation (today the state forest). The movie catches the heath hen about six or seven years before the last one died somewhere in the central wilderness of the Vineyard.
Known by the Latin name Tympanuchus cupido cupido, the heath hen was a plump, russet bird in the grouse family, considered in its day to be a subspecies of the greater western prairie chicken, which continues to inhabit certain prairies in the Midwest. A hundred years before the movie was shot on the Vineyard, the bird had ranged up and down the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to perhaps Maine, until hunting and the loss of fields and low coastal woodlands extirpated it from the mainland by 1839.
After that, the last population on earth found itself confined to what was in those days a tangled plain of huckleberry, blueberry, bushy rockrose and low scrub in the middle of the Island. In 1907, at the urging of James E. Howland of Vineyard Haven and others, the state established the 600-acre heath hen reservation. The arid, blasted heathland of the old reservation comes across bleakly but vividly in the film.
The film, untitled and unfinished, shows superintendent Allan G. Keniston (a title card in the film misspells his name) pumping a well on the reservation and state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush peering through field glasses. Framing the confrontations as a prizefight, title cards present the male birds facing off, staring, bobbing, attacking, hopping and booming at one another.
The fact that the movie is silent means we do not hear the ethereal booming today.
Though films were shot of the birds in 1918 and possibly at other times, the 44 minutes, 30 seconds from the middle 1920s may be the only footage of the heath hen to survive. While it has no date, evidence from the year and condition of a Model T filmed on the reservation strongly suggests that it could not have been shot before 1925. The filmmakers and location of the original film, if it survives, are as yet unknown.
If the movie was shot in the spring of 1926, there may have been as many as 50 heath hens left on the Vineyard, according to a census. In 1929 only Booming Ben remained. He was banded, watched and photographed, but mostly he was left alone on the old plain — literally alone.
When he failed to reappear on the reservation or in the fields of Jimmy Green’s farm in the spring of 1933, the Gazette announced that April 21 that the last bird was gone. It published a photo of him on page one, surrounding it with a black border and quoting Friedrich Schiller from Wilhelm Tell: “I am the last of my race. My name ends with me.”
For more information on the Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project, please write email@example.com. To avoid damage, please do not run an old film through a projector. To see the collection of Island films presented to date, go to mvgazette.com/historicmoviesofmarthasvineyard.