Audobon’s Long Lost Engraving – Found

Norwalk Ohio's $3 bank note featuring the Long Lost grouse engraved by Audobon.

What is it with Norwalk? The tiny little Ohio town has popped up in the news twice in the last few days. First, in Norther Ohio’s  Morning Journal with a report of Coyotes cornering people in a public park. That sucks.

And this morning in a really nice piece on NPR’s Morning Edition about a newly re-discovered piece of work by James Audobon.

The piece in question shown above at the bottom of a Norwalk 3 dollar bill, I will hold the puns thank you, is a little engraving Audobon did at the start of his career, a little piece of clip art for the banking industry that apparently was thought to have been never used, or if used, destroyed when the US went to a single currency. But alas the little bill has triumphed and flushed from the tall grass of history and is now flying into the national spotlight.

Unfortunately the radio piece featured some folks with no real interest in the Grouse family. They painted it as a poor choice for Audobon and the Banks, and made it out to be a sad little bird of no consequence. I’m sure they meant no ill-will toward the little bird but they could have painted in a little bit more positive light. The disparaging and belittling tone they used when referring to the Grouse family was disappointing to folks like us who think of the Ruffed Grouse as the king of all upland birds.

In fact, Audobon’s work did not depict a Ruffed Grouse at all like I was picturing during the radio broadcast in my early morning traffic, it depicted the Heath Hen, a member of the Grouse family but not a Ruffed Grouse. The Heath Hen is actually more closely related to the Greater Prarie Chicken. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Heath Hen and Its extinction. Fascinating stuff and an interesting study in over hunting and  the first real example of bird conservation.

Perhaps this story will re-kindle interest in the Heath Hen and who knows we could end up reading about Heath Hen sightings in the future like we did recently with the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.

Its not long until the Grouse opener, see you in the woods.

The Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) was a distinctive subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken, Tympanuchus cupido, a large North American bird in the grouse family, or possibly a distinct species.

Heath hens lived in the scrubby heathland barrens of coastal North America from southernmost New Hampshire to northern Virginia in historical times, but possibly south to Florida prehistorically. The prairiechickens, Tympanuchus species, on the other hand, inhabited prairies from Texas north to Indiana and the Dakotas, and in earlier times in mid-southern Canada.

Heath hens were extremely common in their habitat during Colonial times, but being a gallinaceous bird, they were hunted by settlers extensively for food. In fact, many have speculated that the Pilgrimsfirst Thanksgiving dinner featured heath hens and not wild turkey. By the late 18th century, the heath hen had a reputation as poor man’s food for being so cheap and plentiful; Thomas L. Winthrop related that they could be found on the Boston Common and that servants would sometimes bargain with a new employer for not being given heath hen for food more often than two or three days a week.

Extinction

Owing to intense hunting pressure, the population declined rapidly. Perhaps as early as the 1840s, at any rate by 1870, all heath hens were extirpated on the mainland. There were about 300 left on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, off Massachusetts, but by 1890 this number had declined to 120-200 birds, mainly due to predation by feral cats and poaching. By the late 1800s, there were about 70 left. These were protected by a hunting ban and by the establishment in 1908 of the “Heath Hen Reserve” (today the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest), and the population rapidly grew to almost 2000: by the mid-1910s, observing the birds on their lekking grounds had become something of a tourist attraction. However, a destructive fire during the 1916 nesting season, severe winters, an unusual influx of predatory goshawks, inbreeding, an excess number of male individuals and apparently an epidemic of blackhead disease, which might have been transmitted by poultry, brought the numbers down quickly; after a last recovery to 600 in 1920, the population began its final decline.

In 1927, only about a dozen were left – a mere two being females – despite being afforded the best protection according to contemporary science; that number had declined to a handful, all males, by the end of the year. After December 8, 1928, apparently only one male survived (Gross, 1931), lovingly nicknamed “Booming Ben”. He was last seen on his traditional lekking ground between West Tisbury and today’s Martha’s Vineyard Airport on March 11, 1932 – early in the breeding season -, and thus presumably died, about 8 years old, days or only hours afterwards from unknown causes.

Heath hens were one of the first bird species that Americans tried to save from extinction. As early as 1791, a bill “for the preservation of heath-hen and other game” was introduced in the New York State legislature[2]. Although the effort to save the heath hen from extinction was ultimately unsuccessful, it paved the way for conservation of other species. Ironically, the establishment of the reserve on the open shrubland of what was then called the Great Plain in the Vinyard may have accelerated the heath hen’s extinction. Fires were a normal part of the environment, but with the attempt to suppress fires instead of enforcing ecological succession with controlled burns, open habitat quality decreased and undergrowth accumulated until a normally limited fire would have disastrous consequences, as it did in 1916.[1] Lack of awareness of the region’s historical fire ecology also led the state legislature to require firebreaks when protecting the heath hen.[1]

Realizing the degradation that has affected the State Forest (and although it does hold remarkable biodiversity, prevents it from being utilized to its full potential), reestablishment of the original shrubland/heath/woods mosaic and eventual introduction of the closely related Greater Prairie-Chickens as an “umbrella species” that serves as an indicator of good habitat quality has been discussed since the late 1990s.

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