Film : Martha's Vineyard Museum screens heath hen film
Photo courtesy of MV Museum
The last heath hen spent a few lonely, solitary years on Martha's Vineyard in the early 1930s.
According to Deborah Dickson — whose film "Lost Birds" will screen tonight, June 2 — he could be observed perched on top of an oak tree futilely emitting the breed's famous mating call, which had earned him the name "Booming Ben." Ben was last sighted in 1932 and his demise signaled the extinction of a species that once flourished from Maine to Virginia and was an important source of food for early settlers.
Despite efforts by the state to save the small Island heath hen population that, since the 1870s, accounted for the last representatives of the species, the distinctive bird disappeared forever but its legacy, as well as that of a handful of other extinct birds, will live on thanks to the work of artist/historian Tod McGrain.
Mr. McGrain, an associate professor at Cornell University, has memorialized five extinct North American birds with a series of larger-than-life bronze statues. The five-foot-tall sculptures, which have a modern look and a smooth black patina surface, have been placed on or near the sites of the species' last sightings. Thursday afternoon, a ceremony featuring talks, readings, and music will take place in the State Forest in the area where Ben spent his last few years and where now, his amplified likeness stands as a reminder of not only the heath hen but of the many other animals that we have hunted, crowded, or starved out of existence.
At 5:30 tonight, the film, which details Mr. McGrain's mission, will screen at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, followed by a Q&A with the sculptor and the film's producer and director. The documentary follows Mr. McGrain, after completion of the quintet of sculptures, as he researches appropriate locations and seeks permission for their placement. The filmmakers followed Mr. McGrain from Florida, last home of the Carolina Parakeet, to an island off Newfoundland, Canada where a few Great Auks found their final sanctuary.
The other memorialized birds are the Passenger Pigeon, last seen in Ohio, and the Labrador Duck, whose final known representative was shot and killed in upstate New York. Throughout the film, Mr. McGrain discusses, with obvious reverence, the five birds and the circumstances surrounding their extinctions. With the enthusiasm of a part-time ornithologist, Mr. McGrain brings to life these five species — each remarkable in its own way — and relates how they were exterminated, as well as the efforts to save the last dwindling populations.
Mr. McGrain, who calls himself a backyard birder, got interested in his subject when, in the course of reading up on birds, he came across unfamiliar names of extinct species.
"It was a bit shocking that there were birds I had never even heard of," he says. He decided to use his talent to resurrect these species to public consciousness in order to have their extinction stories serve as a cautionary tale. "I picked five birds that had radically different habitats and radically different lifestyles, and that differ in their extinction story."
His choice of the heath hen had a lot to do with its extinction story.
History of the heath hen
At the turn of the last century, when it was realized that the Island had become home to the final few hundred heath hens, an ambitious campaign was undertaken to save the birds. Efforts included enacting a hunting ban, shooting predatory animals, and planting crops to feed the hens. The state eventually stepped in and established the Heath Hen Reserve in 1908. "After the heath hens were gone, the preserve was turned into the state forest," Ms. Dickson says. "That was the first time that the government had actually tried to save a bird. It was a turning point in the conservation movement."
The heath hen's life story is just as remarkable as its extinction story. According to Mr. McGrain, the chicken-sized bird was "one of the most popular hunted meats. It played a really significant role in supporting the people of the East Coast." He adds, "It was probably the bird that was brought to the first Thanksgiving." As a matter of fact, the heath hen was such common game meat that servants often made it a condition of employment that they not be fed heath hen more than two or three times a week.
Where Mr. McGrain really waxes enthusiastic is in describing the spectacular behavior of the bird. "Its competitive mating ritual is just absolutely amazing." The males would puff out bright orange sacs located on either side of their neck and let out their booming call, which Ms. Dickson likens to the sound made by blowing air over the top of a bottle. The striking display, which can be observed in the closely related Great Prairie Chicken, inspired a Native American dance that continues to be performed by various tribes nationwide. Mr. McGrain says of the heath hen, "It stands out in the five because it's a really iconic and unusual bird."
The artist has produced two sets of sculptures. The second set, along with a series of drawings and narratives, make up a traveling exhibit that has been making its way around the West Coast.
Ms. Dickson hopes to screen the documentary at the four other extinction sites. This is the first time that the film, which will eventually include original music, is being shown. Ms. Dickson's previous films have been shown on HBO and have garnered three Oscar nominations. She is submitting "Lost Birds" to film festivals and is seeking broadcasters.
Mr. McGrain's Lost Birds Project should go a long way in preserving the birds' legacy. In the film he explains that he designed the sculptures with rounded lines and a smooth finish to encourage hands-on appreciation. "Touch is a very direct way to bring something close to make the thing present. So, while the birds are gone, touching the birds — the memorials — at least gives us something to hold onto." He adds, "Keeping the loss present. That was part of the entire process from beginning to end."
"The Lost Birds" 5:30 pm, Thursday, June 2, Federated Church, Edgartown. $12; $8 members. A dedication ceremony precedes the film at 12 noon, at the site located off Edgartown-West Tisbury Road in West Tisbury near Deep Bottom Pond. Contact the museum at 508-627-4441; email@example.com for more information.
Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.