Friday, March 14, 2014

The Heath Hen Is Not an Extinct Species

The Heath Heath is not an extinct species. In fact it was NEVER a species.

You will pardon me if I do not gasp and have the vapors from this breathless announcement:
Once common in America, the prairie chicken called the Heath hen went extinct in 1932. Until recently, there was no hope of seeing the bird in motion again. But a 1918 film was found, in bad condition, a few years ago and has now been restored for viewing.

The Heath Heath, was, is, and has never been anything more than a subspecies of Greater Prairie Chicken or Pinnated Grouse a.k.a. Tympanuchus cupido.  Instead of being extinct, it's a bird whose current population fluctuates between 17,000 and 35,000.

Is that a lot of birds?  No.  But it's sure as hell a sight short of extinct!

So what does the Heath Hen, Tympanuchus cupido cupido look like?  

Exactly like a Prairie Chicken!

If anyone wants to "reintroduce" the Heath Hen back to Massachusetts or any of the states with scrubby heath barrens along the North American coast from New Hampshire to northern Virginia, all they have to do is have the right habitat and cover free of fox, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and other predators.

Heath Hen Flashback from Timothy Barksdale on Vimeo.


Lucas Machias said...

They disagree here

The plan is to resurrect it.

The Jesus chicken?

PBurns said...

There is no clear evidence that the Heath Hen is not just a plain old Prairie Chicken, same as all the other sub-species of PC.

A sub-species is not a species. We can argue about speciation, but the simple fact is that these birds were once all over, and were a seamless and once contiguous population with other PC subpecies. There is no evidence they did not interbreed without distinction.

PC's have a hard time on the east coast due to human predation, habitat fragmentation, and meso-predator (fox, coons, cats, possums, etc.) as well as disease. That was true early on as black head disease, cats and guns knocked down birds that otherwise survived in the cold and arid west where coons, possums,and red fox did not exist, and chicken and poultry colonies (sinks for black head disease) were far, far away.

Bird GMO is interesting work, and I am a huge fan of Steward Brand and wish him will, but I do not think this is the revival of a lost species but simply playing with DNA to help learn how that idea might be accomplished in the future.

Via email, you note that the Heath Hen and the Prairie Chicken lived in different habitats, which is true, and that they adapted differently, which is also true.

I would argue, however, that this is the same bird expressing different adaptations to the same problem -- hawk and meso-predators. There were no coon, fox, or possums in the American west, so the main predator (other than coyotes) came from the air. No trees (due to lack of mycrorhizal fungus in the soil) meant hawks and eagles could not roost, and the PC's could scoot under the scrub if they were seen in the air (and from a distance).

On the East Coast, trees were (and are) endemic everywhere, and so too are meso-predators, so the goal of the PC was to hide in thick brush where they could not be seen, and there were fewer mice and rats and things to attract meso-predators.

When people thinned out brush and brought in chickens, meso-predators populations soared, as did black head disaese, and PCs populations plummeted as a consequence.

PBurns said...

For an analogy, think of the native American population in the 1840s when the PC populaiton was already starting to crash hard. Native Americans did fine on the plains in the 1840s, as no white people were around and if they showed up, the natives could ride away in another direction. Disease was knocking tribes to their knees, but there was still wilderness to provide some big areas of buffer.

During this same period of time, on the East Coast, native American populations were in free fall due to disease (same as the Prairie Chicken). As forest fell to fire and ax, and roads pierced every hollow and remote bay, the native Indians had fewer and fewer places to hide. Deer and turkey and other wildlife became scare and, under predation by whites (wholesale murders), disease, and loss of food security (starvation) the tribes were soon wiped out for the most part.

No one argues native Americans were different species. These were all people of similar stock (and frequent migration and intermarriage) but they adapted to different habitats using different coping mechanisms.

The same thing is fairly common among birds. Look at the Spotted Owl, for instance. Spotted Owls are one species living in very different environments from deep old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest to the deserts and scrub of Mexico. The northern spotted owl and the southern spotted owl readily interbreed (and both frequently cross-breed with barred owls). Is the "Northern Spotted Owl" a species? Nope -- it's a SUBspecies that habitat-protecting environmentalists want to use as a bell-weather to protect old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. I am all for that, but the birds themselves do not recognize a species division, any more than the Lakota recognize a species distinction between themselves and the Algonquin. All one people, with a free-flowing gene pool, making survival adaptations for different habitats. But could the Algonquin survive the arrival of white people? Nope. And neither could the Eastern Prairie Chicken, for much the same reason.