This Was Then: The Island’s lost birds

The Penguins of Martha's Vineyard.


In 1602, John Brereton, chronicler of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold’s exploration of Martha’s Vineyard, recorded the many different kinds of birds he saw on the Island: eagles, “hernshaws” (herons), cranes, bitterns, mallards, teals, geese, penguins, ospreys, hawks, crows, ravens, “mews” (seagulls), doves, “sea-pies” (oystercatchers), and blackbirds.

Wait, sorry. Penguins?

Yes. In 1602, our Island was a popular hangout for large, flightless, black-and-white birds known as “penguins” (Scientific name: Pinguinus impennis). They stood upright, nearly three feet tall; and while they were clumsy walkers, they were powerful swimmers and divers, catching fish and shellfish off the shores of the Cape and Islands.

They were on the menu, too, for millennia. Archeological digs on the Vineyard have unearthed the bones of these noble birds in Wampanoag middens. As late as 1794, writers included the “Penguin” as one of the sea-fowl that were then “plenty on the shores and in the bay” off Cape Cod.

But the bird was wiped out by the increasing populations of gun-toting settlers. It was hunted to extinction for its eggs, feathers, and fat; and for fishing bait. The last two confirmed specimens were killed in 1844 off the coast of Iceland.

When similar (but only distantly related) birds were discovered by European explorers in the Southern Hemisphere, they were named after their northern counterparts. The former then became the “Penguin” while the latter became known as the “Great Auk.”

The Great Auk was not the only extinct species to once make a home on the Vineyard. A huge bronze statue, designed by artist Todd McGrain, stands in the State Forest commemorating the last sighting of Booming Ben, the last of the heath hen, Tympanuchus cupido cupido. But there are others, too.

In 1849, statesman Daniel Webster made a visit to the Island. Webster had served as U.S. Secretary of State under three presidents — Harrison, Tyler, and Fillmore — as well as both a U.S. Senator and Representative for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He received a VIP welcome full of picnics and pomp (although a whites-only Edgartown hotel reportedly initially turned him away, mistaking him for a man of color). Dr. Daniel Fisher of Edgartown took him on a grand tour of the Island, bluefishing off South Beach, admiring the Gay Head Cliffs, and riding through the Great Plains, shooting birds from their moving carriage.

Dr. Fisher proved to be the better shot from a moving vehicle, but Webster managed to take down two rare ducks — “Pied Ducks” or “Labrador Ducks” (so named because of their Canadian breeding ground). Webster’s specimens soon wound up in the collection of ornithologist John Audubon, who reportedly used the pair as models for his detailed illustrations. Eventually, they wound up in the Smithsonian, where they remain today.

Described as “in greate abundance” in New England in the 1620s, the Labrador duck was quite rare by Webster’s day. It was considered a bad-tasting bird, and did not command a high price, but its high demand in the millinery trade may account for its demise. The species’ last known sighting was in 1878, in Elmira, N.Y.

Why don’t the Great Auk and the Labrador duck have great bronze statues, too? They do, actually. Booming Ben has bronze counterparts located in Fogo, Newfoundland, and Elmira.

A third believed-extinct bird that once made a home on the Vineyard was the Eskimo Curlew, a shorebird in the same family as sandpipers. Commonly called the “Doe-bird” or “Dough-bird,” the 12-inch long bird was once one of the most numerous shorebird species on the continent, with immense, sky-darkening migrations landing in flocks covering more than 40 acres.

Edward Howe Forbush, state ornithologist of Massachusetts, wrote in 1912, “Mr. Elbridge Gerry tells me that about 1,872 Dough-birds came in a great flight to Cape Cod and Nantucket. They ‘were everywhere,’ and were killed in such numbers on the Cape that the boys offered them for sale at six cents each. Two market hunters killed three hundred dollars’ worth at that time. Mr. John M. Winslow of Nantucket states that in 1882 he and Peter Folger of that town killed eighty-seven Dough-birds there one morning, and there were probably five hundred birds in the pasture where these were killed. Mr. Lewis W. Hill writes that his grandfather, Mr. W. W. Webb, killed about seventy at Cape Pogue, Martha’s Vineyard, about the same time.”

The last confirmed sightings of the Eskimo Curlew were in the 1960s. And although there have been a few plausible sightings since then (including one on the Vineyard in 1972), it is widely believed that the Eskimo Curlew has now joined the Great Auk and the Labrador duck in extinction. This week, McGrain sent us an update: “I have just completed an Eskimo Curlew memorial for Galveston State Park in Galveston, Texas.”

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.