Archive for November, 2010

Our mystery neonatal canid is a newborn gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).

Both normal red and cross phase red foxes and gray foxes are born this ashy gray color. The way to tell the neonates apart is to look at the nails. Gray foxes have long, curved nails, which they utilize in their well-known arboreal habits. Gray foxes are so at home in the trees that some people call them “tree foxes.”

Of course, the other way to tell them apart is to look at their tails. All red foxes, regardless of phase, have white-tipped tails. Gray foxes never do.

I should note that I have some issues calling a gray fox a fox. They are not true foxes at all.

The two canids in the genus Urocyon are thought to represent a primitive line of the dog family that retained the ancestral carnivores’ ability to climb trees.

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Abraham Lincoln ran using the image of himself as a frontiersman.

And while he and his family lived in Springfield, Illinois, he kept a frontier dog named Fido.

He was a mid-sized, yellow-colored dog that looked something like a small Labrador retriever.

Many have conjectured about what his breed was, but mid-sized yellow dogs from that region at that time in history could only be one thing: Fido was a cur.

More specifically he was part of the cur landrace that range from the Appalachians to the Ohio Valley into the lower parts of the Midwest. This is the gene  from which the now-standardizing mountain cur breed is derived.

Curs were not and are not mongrels. They are multi-purpose farm dogs that had a great utility in parts of British Isles. When they arrived in America, they were used hunting and herding, and bloodlines that included German and Dutch dogs mixed with those British and Irish curs. A few strains may even have a bit of Native American dog sprinkled in, and in some other strains of cur, like the Lacy dog of Texas, wolf ancestry is often claimed.

Fido was not a working dog of any sort. He was a beloved house pet. He often accompanied Lincoln as he walked the streets of Springfield, often carrying a newspaper in his mouth. He occasionally engaged the time tested canine activity of tail chasing. When Lincoln stopped by the barber for a trim, the Fido would wait on him outside the shop.

So loved was Fido that Lincoln gave him a rolling horsehair sofa on which he could lounge. Not bad work for a cur.

Lincoln deeply loved Fido, but when he was elected president in 1860, he decided to leave Fido with friends in Springfield. Lincoln was going to arrive in Washington, D.C., via train, and as his train went through the various towns, church bells and cannons were going to be fired.

Poor Fido was gun shy, and he doubted that he would enjoy the trip that much at all.

Because Fido enjoyed playing with the LIncoln children, it was decided that Fido should stay with the Roll family. The Rolls had two young boys that would give Fido all the attention he needed. According the Poodle and Dog Blog, the Rolls were given the following instructions for caring for Fido:

  • He was not to be scolded for entering the house with muddy paws.
  • He was not to be tied up alone in the backyard.
  • He was to be allowed into the Roll home whenever he scratched at the front door.
  • Since he was accustomed to being fed by members of the family during mealtime, he was to be admitted to the dining room during those times.

I don’t know of too many curs on the frontier who got that kind of attention or  were given those special privileges.

Fido lived with the Rolls while Lincoln was in Washington. However, poor Fido met as tragic a fate as his master. Within a year of Lincoln’s assassination, a drunken man stabbed him to death.

Such a terrible fate for such a great dog.


For those of you who doubt that Fido was a cur. I need only to point you to photos of modern curs, like this one or this one, to make make my case.

One strain of cur, developed in Kentucky, often produces yellow dogs that look so much like Fido. It is called Mountain View Cur. From the photos on its breed club’s website, many of these dogs look a lot like Fido.

I don’t know why curs are not more celebrated in our national history. These dogs were ubiquitous on the frontier, and in some parts of the country, they are quite common.

They are not standardized breeds in the way that AKC dogs are. That’s probably how the term cur got confused with a randomly-bred dogs.  They are also not specialized in the way many working breeds are and didn’t really fit into the culture of stock dog trials or coonhound night hunts.

They were the dogs that the settlers knew. Natural selection and the necessity of having a versatile dog on the frontier drove their breeding.

It is only recently that they have begun to standardize into distinct breeds, which is a mixed blessing. As standardized breeds, they may be recognized and appreciated more fully in their country of origin, but also as standardized breeds, they will cease to exist within the framework that maintained them as a working landrace.

I have always admired these dogs. My neighbor growing up had one that he used as a coonhound, and he was a tough little dog.

I have often thought that if West Virginia should ever need to declare a state dog, it should be the Mountain Cur. This was he dog of the mountaineer, the frontiersman, while the foxhound remained mostly the purview of the Tidewater Tuckahoes in the Old Dominion. Virginia’s state dog is the foxhound, and our should be a true creature of the mountains.

For they are every bit as much a part of the wildness that was once the frontier as black bears and coonskin caps.

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No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

–Albert Einstein

With the discussion that has happened on this blog, Border Wars, and DesertWindHounds about inbreeding, dog health, and closed registries,. some have asked me what we should do about it.

Yes. The problems with dogs in this regard are mostly systemic, and systemic problems have certain issues associated with them.

One of these is that systemic problems are often hard to observe. If something has been accepted as virtuous for a very long, then it may be difficult for anyone but total outsiders to see anything wrong with them. I am certain that this is the case with most dog issues, because the Western dog fancy has been around for about 150 years. No can remember when the values of the fancy were established, and very few question whether these values are good. If you do, another aspect of systemic problems comes to the fore.

Systemic problems exist because systems have ways of reinforcing themselves. It is more like the indoctrination system of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. People are simply conditioned to accept certain negative things as good. The best example of this is blood purity for blood purity’s sake it. It is one religious tenant that cannot be touched. It even supplants reason.

And that’s another problem: reason often doesn’t matter when dealing with systemic problems. The values that maintain the system are very much against those who question. Even harsher measures are used against those who actually do something about the problems they see.

These problems are big. They are almost impossible for the average dog owner to see anyway of combating them.

That’s why so many people get involved in rescue.  Dog rescue does have some inherent problems, but in general, it is nothing quite like the issues surrounding the closed registry problem.

And there is nothing wrong with getting involved in rescue. Each person should participate where one feels most comfortable.

However, the dog owning public can do lots of things to help bring about reform.

One thing should always be understood: The closed registry system is moribund. The AKC has declining registrations year after year. It is on its way out, unless it begins to reform. (Which is unlikely.)

There are other registries, but some of them are nothing more than paper mills. I know of a few that if you breed a jaguar to a dog, I bet they’d register the hybrids. Those registries are not inherently good. They are nothing more than paper mills, and they are part and parcel of the mass production industry. They are not the solution to this problem.

So now that we know that the big institutions that exist to promote the fancy are in trouble, I don’t think we need to waste much more breath criticizing them. Jess does particularly good job at exposing some of the weird belief system that exist within her chosen breeds, and the more those get exposed, the less likely new dog owners are going to pay attention to them.

Logic and reason are your friends in dealing with this mess. Follow this advice from Daria Morgendorffer (I’m dating myself, I know):

Stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked.

Now, use logic and reason when you enter the marketplace in search of a new dog.   Look for breeders who understand issues related to genetic diversity and the long-term health of their breeds or types. You will find that this is a bit harder than using logic and reason, but they do exist. That is because even breeders of working breeds often have a poor understing of population genetics.

That is how the market will sort some of this out.

But the market alone won’t save it. Markets can only work so long as people are informed. My suggestion is that everyone try to get as many people as possible to read the posts Jess and Christopher have put up about inbreeding and closed registries. Those are all very readable. I would also suggest that everyone take a look at The Canine Diversity Project. Some of the links don’t work, but it still a great source for information.

Truth does not set us free. But it is a good first step.

If one has the resources and time, it is probably a good idea for one to consider participating as a breeder. Now, to be a breeder who intentionally produces for genetic diversity is to be really a “man (or woman) in the arena.”  But we need more people breeding dogs. I know that sounds counterintuitive and is against almost all the things we hear from various welfare organizations and breed clubs. However, the only way to increase genetic diversity for the long term health of dogs is to have more dogs breeding– and more people need to be breeders.

Unfortunately, many dog people are simply unaware for the problems that can result from a paucity of genetic diversity. The various cultures do not reward diversity. They reward conformity. They reward top producing sires, and when a male dog excels in some area, everyone wants to breed from him.

If the cultures at large don’t reward diversity, then it is up to consumers to solve the problem. Many people are uncomfortable with this solution, but because the issues with each individual dog population are different and because different breeders have different approaches to solving these problems, we cannot ethically legislate them away.

In the end, all of these problems will be solved. The information continues to flow freely on the internet. People are openly questioning things. The response that these genetic diversity posts have been getting from all three blogs shows that the dog-loving public is deeply concerned.

I don’t think anyone wants to harm dogs, but that which has existed before has been harmful. To think that we can solve these problems without making big systemic changes is a delusion, and it is why I included the Einstein quote at the top of this post. I don’t think we can solve these problems with the current registry systems we have, whether it be the AKC or the ABCA.

And that’s a hard thing to say.

And even harder thing to change.

But people want something better. We just have to work together to find ways of getting there. We have to use what we can to disseminate information and push for reform. If we all keep pushing a little bit, we will get there.

In the past months, I think I can safely say that a large enough percentage of the dog loving public is questioning these issues that we can begin to see things change. People are looking for answers. I don’t have all of them. No one does.

We have to work together to find those answers.

I’m confident that we’ll do it.


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Geoffroy’s cat


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Coyote track, Calhoun County, West Virginia, Spring 2010.

Continued from Part I

I am sure that some will say that the coyote numbers are up this year. I have heard some trappers claiming they have taken more coyotes than usual, and this will be touted as evidence for the coyotes’ culpability in the low deer harvest.

This can easily be countered with some simple logic. Most of the deer died of starvation and perhaps some marginal predation toward the end of the winter.  There were many deer carcasses lying around in the woods towards the end of March last year. There were so many of them that they remained well into the spring, rotting and stinking in the sun as it melted away the snow. There were vast flocks of turkey vultures circling in the sky well into May. The scavengers were doing well.

Including the coyotes.

Late winter is when coyote bitches are pregnant with their pups, and the deer carcasses provided them with good quality nutrition during their pregnancies and through much of their nursing period. That means that more coyote pups survived the summer, and that’s why people are seeing so many coyotes and why the trappers claim to be catching more.

Coyotes will probably not have such an easy time this year. If there are fewer dead deer about, they will not be able to produce as many pups. And if prey species are scarce, as they apparently are, many coyotes will starve.  There will be conflicts over territory, and as unhealthy coyotes fight over existence, my guess is that people will be seeing lots of mangy coyotes or “chupacabras” running around here towards the end of the winter.

Last winter, the white-tailed deer suffered something akin to an Holodomor. It was not the harshness of winter that killed them. It was the harshness of the heavy snows and what some have called a “mast failure.”  Deer cannot survive on grass. They need nuts in their diet, and without nuts, they simply died of malnutrition.

The coyotes benefited from the deer’s misfortune, and if things continue as they are, the coyotes will soon experience their starving time.

That is how predator-prey relationships normally work in a healthy ecosystem.  If the deer population totally crashed, then there might be some justification to kill off the coyotes.

Good luck doing that.

Coyotes are nearly impossible to eradicate from an area. They are a beautifully fecund species, and if you kill one, that individual will easily be replaced. Coyotes respond to vacuums in the population by producing more pups. The younger bitches pair off sooner and breed earlier than when the population is relatively stable.

I have nothing against coyote trapping or hunting, but killing coyotes will not “save” deer. Deer are much more regulated by the essentials of food, water, and cover than they are by predators.

Predators are necessary, and human should not be the only predators in an ecosystem. History has shown time and again what happens when humans try to assume the role of the sole predator.  The populations of prey species explode.

Granted, with more deer, more licenses can be sold, which is good for the agency.

However, ecosystems can handle only so many deer, and only so many people can be convinced to hunt them. Not everyone agrees that hunting is ethical.

I am reminded of an essay by another person associated with the University of Wisconsin. One wonders if Mr. Engelke has read “Thinking Like a Mountain” by Aldo Leopold, who taught forestry at Engelke’s alma mater. It is one of the most eloquent defenses of predators in the ecosystem that I have ever read. Leopold was working as a forester in the Southwest and regularly hunted deer there. One day, he and his companion were eating lunch one day, they spotted a bitch wolf and her puppies. They opened fire on them, wounding a pup and killing the bitch. As the bitch lay dying, Leopold came across her green eyes just as the life rushed out of them. He found it so deeply moving:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Through that wolf’s death, he began to realize how important predators were in maintaining the ecosystem:

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

The Rusty Shackleford school of wildlife management is based entirely upon imperfect human perceptions. To the imperfect human eye, the large numbers of coyotes and fewer numbers of deer surely mean that the former had something to do with the later. It is a very good example of “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” reasoning. Like Chanticleer, the rooster of Medieval lore, who believed that his crowing caused the sun to rise, the Rusty Shackleford school tries to reduce complex ecological phenomena into easily explained conspiracy theories. Who knows how many people will wage war on coyotes now, thinking they are somehow going to vastly increase deer herds?

The coyote and the bobcat are inheritors of an empire that was once ruled by wolves and cougars. They are not nearly as effective as their predecessors, but what effects they do have are not nearly as catastrophic as some would have us believe. They have every bit as much right to exist here as the deer do. True, their populations can and should be managed, but they should managed from a scientific perspective, not out of paranoia and conspiracy theories.

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The first week of buck season ended with kill totals down.

The DNR is blaming “hot” weather, something I don’t entirely agree with. A few years ago, it was freakishly hot during deer season, and they still managed to kill a lot of deer.

There are three real factors for why the deer kill was off:

  1. The bad winter and poor mast crop last year were really hard on the deer. The former is less of a factor than the latter, for it is the mast crop and the fat reserves it produces that allow the deer to survive even the most brutal conditions. Many deer just starved to death, and the surviving does either didn’t have their fawns or were only able to raise a single fawn this year. Mature does usually have twins, but they may abort or resorb fetal fawns if conditions are bad.
  2. Lack of hunter participation. Nationwide, fewer people hunt. And even fewer hunt deer in West Virginia. Not as many people come to hunt the relatively small deer here, and the recession is a definite factor on why hunters have not been out there.
  3. The good mast crop this year means the deer aren’t traveling to find food sources. Last year, when there were very little nuts on the trees, the deer seemed to be everywhere. That means they were forced out into the open to graze. It surprised me that the deer kill was off last year, but that sounds more like factor 2 coming into play than anything ecological. Deer simply cannot be killed when no one is hunting.

It is very likely that the deer population will recover. Nature operates in booms and busts like this. With fewer deer about, the saplings of various tree species can grow unmolested.  That gives the young trees a head start, and with some species, the saplings will have grown so large and healthy that even modest deer predation cannot kill them.

This year’s mast crop is relatively good and with relatively fewer deer foraging on it, the does that should now be pregnant will have plenty of nourishment to develop healthy fawns. Most of the mature does should have twins next spring, and most of  yearling does should have their singleton fawns.

And when they are born in May, they will grow from does that don’t have their fat reserves entirely depleted by both winter starvation and pregnancy.

That will give these fawns a good head start.

The deer numbers may not recover that first year, but if conditions remain relatively normal, they will return.

But the deer kill may stay low, simply because of  low hunter participation.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped some people from resorting to what can best be called the Rusty Shackleford school of wildlife management.

Rusty Shackleford was the alias of one of the best fictional characters ever created for a TV series.

On King of the Hill

Now Dale might be a caricature of a certain paranoid sort that often exists in American politics. We often erroneously believe that these characters exist only on the right, but they exist on the left, too. Ever hear of the 9/11 truthers?

Well, these same sorts of sentiments exist even when discussing such mundane matters as deer numbers.

A good follower of the Rusty Shackleford school is the author of the Creston News, which appears in several publications in very rural West Virginia. The deer numbers are down for a very simple reason– “DNR coyotes.” Mr. Engelke writes:

One local fellow who has a game camera at his corn feeder reported that the only critters coming to the feeder were bears and deer tracks were scarce in the Two Runs – Rock Run area. Some feel that the coyotes, who prefer fawns to lambs, thinned the herd just like they have done in the mountain counties. Others wonder if the DNR or some other agency did something to reduce the population (on the sly of course).

I don’t have any official qualifications to speak, but I have read extensively about wildlife management issues. Mr. Engelke does have qualifications to talk about this matter. He has a degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin.

But I wonder where he learned that coyotes could have such a drastic impact upon deer numbers.

Coyotes do take deer, but these depredations are not enough to cause massive population crashes.  Coyotes do take fawns, but in this part of the world, they are much more reliant upon small game. Deer evolved with canid predation, and the does instinctively know how to hide their fawns in dense cover to keep dogs and coyotes from killing.

Does are not milquetoasts when it comes to defending their fawns, as poor Miley found out. The summer before last, she was just walking near a spot where a doe had hidden a fawn. The doe was nearby and as soon as she saw the dog coming, she went after her. In the 70’s, my grandparents had a small dog named Carl who got badly beaten up by a doe defending her fawn.  Dogs have a lot to fear from does with small fawns. They are very aggressive about defending their offspring.

If I were a coyote and had no access to a veterinarian, I think I’d be a little cautious about preying upon fawns. It’s less risky to hunt rabbits and groundhogs.

I’m not saying that coyotes don’t take deer or have no effect upon their number, but the lack of food and the harsh winter had a much greater impact upon deer numbers than any effect coyote predation could have.

Of course, there is another assumption in Engleke’s theory that must examined. He assumes that the DNR or some other dark agency released coyotes. I have always heard it was  the insurance companies. The “rural legend” is that one guy shot a coyote with a tag in its ear that said “Property of State Farm.” The insurance companies supposedly released them– perhaps in concert with the DNR,  which also denies the supposed existence of wolves and black panthers in West Virginia for some other dark reason– to thin out the deer herds. Fewer deer mean fewer insurance claims from automobiles hitting them on the roads.

Actually, coyotes got to West Virginia because, in case no one has noticed, coyotes now live throughout the Eastern US and a big chunk of Eastern Canada. They came east in spite of widespread persecution, because that same persecution killed off the wolf. Wolves  normally kill coyotes, and with the wolf gone, the coyote could colonize the wolf’s former range in the East.

Secondarily, people were buying coyotes in Western and Midwestern states to release as a game animal. It wasn’t always illegal to do so, and many foxhound enthusiasts would rather their dogs run coyotes. I’m also certain that some coyotes were bred with dogs in captivity to make hybrids to be sold on the pet market. A certain very small percentage of coyotes in West Virginia have dog MtDNA

The Rusty Shacklefords believe that DNR wants to use predation to severely limit deer numbers. But the DNR itself operates in part on license fees. Deer are a major reason why people buy licenses. If the DNR wants the largest deer population it can sustainable have, then why would it introduce a predator to thin the herds?

And  if that were its ultimate goal, why would it introduce the coyote, which can survive by hunting groundhogs and rabbits? Wouldn’t it be better to bring back the wolf or the cougar.

It is interesting that Mr. Engleke is now in favor of very high numbers of deer. I remember reading many editions of the Creston News in which he as expressed a concern that deer numbers were too high. And just this August, he was concerned they were eating too many peaches. If the coyotes were killing off the deer, you’d think he’d be happy about it. (Continued in another post— WordPress keeps bunching my text! This is Part II)

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Check out the claws:

The answer.

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a newborn domestic rabbit.

Newborn rabbits are born hairless, but they soon grow in hair within just a few days.

Domestic rabbits are derived from European rabbits, but all wild-type rabbits have a little white dash on their heads when their fur grows in.

The first hair to grow in on a wild type rabbit is quite dark, but that dash is always visible once the fur comes in.

The white dash normally disappears by the time the rabbit is two months old in the case of Eastern cottontails.


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Yesterday, Thanksgiving was celebrated in the United States.

We base this holiday on the harvest celebration and smörgåsbord that the English Separatists (which we Americans have always called “Pilgrims”) put on after their first successful summer in the New World.

The “Pilgrims” ate lots of different things in their 1621 Thanksgiving feast that they shared with the Wampanoag people, who had shared food with them during that first winter. Prominent among them were the “wild Turkies” that were easily dispatched. In every account of the feast that I have read, there is a mention of wild fowl, with waterfowl and turkeys getting special mention.

William Bradford specifically mentions the “great store of wild turkeys” that were served in the event in Of Plymouth Plantation:

Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

Because the turkeys were so prominent in that meal,  Thanksgiving in the US always features a turkey as the main course. Never mind that the turkey that most of eat is as different from the Eastern wild turkey that the “Pilgrims” and the Wampanoag ate as the St. Bernard is from the coyote.

It is our tradition– part of our national lore. Of course, before turkeys became mass produced, pork featured more prominently as the main course. Hogs were ubiquitous, and November was always the traditional hog butchering month. Mass-production of big-breasted domestic turkeys has meant that the turkey will be synonymous with Thanksgiving.

But perhaps our view of the turkey and Thanksgiving are a bit distorted. While it is certainly true that wild turkey was very common and very easily killed in the first days of English colonization of what became New England, but it did not take long for their numbers to become rapidly depleted. English naturalist John Josselyn wrote in 1672 that the “Turkie” was nearly gone from New England, and that it had been 30 years since he had seen any wild turkeys. If one does the math, the wild turkey went from being extremely common to very rare  in New England within twenty years of the First Thanksgiving.

If one  also reads Josselyn’s account carefully, wild turkeys had an interesting relationship with the New England Indians. The animals lived in settlements, coming and going as they please and were the original free-range poultry. They lived near their houses as tame as any English turkey.

That behavior is very different from modern wild turkeys, which are very wary of our species.  They are very hard to hunt even when one illegally baits them in with corn. After all, these wild turkeys have been selected from that wild population in the same way wolves have. Only the most wary birds survived our unscrupulous and profligate depredations. At one point, only 30,000 wild turkeys remained,most of them hiding our in remote areas, where market hunters couldn’t blast them out of trees, and all the birds that exist now are descended from these extremely wary individuals.

But the story of the turkey in New England is bit ephemeral.

And while it’s true that the original European settlers of New England and the East Coast did enjoy a great bounty of turkeys, it is another bird that was likely consumed in that first Thanksgiving that would have a much longer-lasted impact upon the diet and lifestyle of those first Europeans to colonize our continent.

It is because of the importance of this bird to so many of the first colonists that we should consider its role in our history more carefully. Perhaps it deserves the title of the founding bird of our country. Our founding feather, if you will.

It is the bird poorly depicted at the top of this post and the subject of my early query.

It no longer exists in any form on the East Coast, but at the time of settlement it was unbelievably common from the New Hampshire coast to the northern parts of Virginia.

I am referring to the heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido). In the early accounts, this bird is called a grouse or a partridge. Unfortunately, those terms have also historically referred to the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), and that common name makes it difficult to tell which species the writer is actually referring to.

The heath hen was very common on the east coast. Ruffed grouse tend be found a bit more inland, but they vaguely look a like. The heath hen was called a partridge by those first settlers, and when they encountered the ruffed grouse as they came inland, they likely gave it the same name. That is most likely why the ruffed grouse is called a partridge in so many part of the US.

The heath hen was found in the “heaths” that were found adjacent to the  coast. “Heath” is an archaic term for what we now call pine barrens or pinelands.

In those pine barrens were a vast multitude of grouse that were so easily killed that they made up a definite staple of the colonists’ diet.  They were commonly killed to feed hireed servants, slaves, and those held in indenture. They were a major source of protein, and when other game species became rare and imported livestock proved less than hardy,  they could always turn to the little heath hens for meat. Without game birds, it would have been harder for Europeans to settle the East Coast, and it is from those settlements that our nation was eventually founded.

Now, these birds were not adapted to living in forests. The pinelands on which they lived were subject to regular fires, which left large open tracts of land for the birds. When this area became colonized, fires were no longer allowed to burn out of control. Unable to adapt to the lack of open tracts within the pinelands, the birds started to become rare.  When European man stopped allowing fires to burn,  the heath hen lost its prime habitat. The fact that they were hunted so extensively for food just compounded their problems.

But unlike the turkey, their numbers didn’t drop as precipitously. Their existence as common food source lasted at least through the first century of colonization. The birds became rare in New York in the late eighteenth century, and in 1791, the New York legislature tried to offer them legal protection– the first game law in the country’s history.

However, they were still common enough through most of their range to be hunted for food until the beginning of the nineteenth century, but by 1840’s, the birds became quite rare. It is believed that they were entirely extinct on the mainland by 1870. A relict population of 300 birds remained on Martha’s Vineyard, but these were in trouble.  The birds were still occasionally poached, and a predation from the island’s feral cats was taking its upon them.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, those 300 birds had become 70.  After setting up a heath hen preserve in 1908, the birds did recover. By the middle of the 1910’s, the were an estimated 2,000 heath hens on Martha’s Vineyard.

I see your eyebrows going up. Whenever you start with such a low founding population, genetic diversity issues can’t be far off. Because this was an island population, it was not as adapted to predation, and when goshawks suddenly began to colonize Martha’s Vineyard, the heath hens didn’t exactly know what to do. Then blackhead disease hit. Perhaps the lack of diversity in the Martha’s Vineyard heath hen MHC made them susceptible to the disease, or perhaps because they were an island population, they had never been exposed to the disease at all and were as highly susceptible to the disease as Native Americans were to small pox. Because chickens were found on Martha’s Vineyard for centuries before the big heath hen epidemic, it seems that the lack of diversity of MHC genes is the more plausible theory.

Whatever it was, only 600 heath hens remained on Martha’s Vineyard by 1920. For some reason, perhaps related to their low genetic diversity, clutch after clutch began to produce a very high ratio of roosters to hens. Within just a few years, the number of heath hens dropped precipitously, and because of the weird sex ratio in the clutches, the majority of the remaining birds were male. In 1927, only a dozen birds remained, and only two were female. Then, in 1928, only a single male remained. He was last seen in 1932, and when he died, the whole species became extinct.

Or so I read as a child.

I had no real concept of what a heath hen was.

I’m an Easterner, and I vaguely remember hearing about a bird called a prairie chicken on a Marty Stouffer nature documentary.

I did not connect prairie chickens and the heath hen in my mind.

However, when I put the Linnaean name for the extinct heath hen, I bet you noticed that it included a subspecies name. The reason why I wrote that subspecies name is that the heath hen is now classified as a subspecies of greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), which although not as common as it once was, is still extant.

Some debate on this taxonomy still exists, because in the genus Tympanuchus, there are four extant species: the aforementioned greater prairie chicken, the lesser prairie chicken (T. pallidicinctus) , and the sharp-tailed grouse (T. phasianellus). They are all genetically and morphologically distinct, but they are not that different genetically. One argument goes that if the lesser prairie chicken is different enough from greater prairie chicken to be considered a separate species, then the heath hen was a distinct species, because it was somewhat genetically distinct from the greater prairie chicken and was adapted to live in a very different part of the country.

People have brought prairie chickens to the east and released them, and they have failed to thrive. It has been suggested that the prairie chickens can’t handle our climate. However, it is more likely that they can’t handle living in an area that has a mixture of cultivation and dense forests, which is exactly what most of the land in the East became.

However, the consensus now is that the heath was the East Coast subspecies of the greater prairie chicken.

Which means that it didn’t go extinct.

Only the subspecies that lived on the East Coast did.

I have thought about this story a bit as I’ve been researching endangered species conservation. Perhaps those conservationists on Martha’s Vineyard could have imported some greater prairie chickens from the West to augment their relict population of heath hens. It would have been worth a shot, and it probably would have been the only thing that would have saved them.

However, because the pinelands of the East Coast no longer are allowed to exist as they did before colonization, it is probably unlikely that the birds would have survived anyway. Because fire kept open large tracts of land in the heaths, these prairie birds were able to live in the East. The nearest population of greater prairie chicken to the heath hen was in western Ohio, where the tall grass prairie ecosystem began.

The heath hen couldn’t survive in a place that was both densely forested and intensively cultivated. Like all prairie chickens, it needs expanses of open land that are not intensely farmed. Those places are not that common anywhere in the East.

All prairie chickens are in trouble. Their numbers have dropped rather dramatically since settlement.. These birds do not thrive in areas that are intensively cultivated. They require unspoiled prairies to thrive, and those areas are simply not that common anywhere.

The subspecies of greater prairie chicken that was our founding bird has gone extinct, and if we are not a bit more careful, the other greater prairie chickens and their lesser prairie chicken cousins might follow them.

Of course, the turkey’s story wound up being quite different. Although reduced to tiny relict populations within the first decades of colonization on the East Coast, the wild turkey has made a dramatic comeback. Today, eastern wild turkeys can be found throughout New England, but they are still uncommon in the northern parts of the region (and probably always were).  Currently, the population of wild turkeys is estimated to be over 7 million birds. The eastern subspecies has essentially been restored to all of its native range, which includes parts of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and a bit of Manitoba.

They aren’t quasi-domesticated, though. Although there are some wild turkeys that come into towns, they are not nearly as tame as the ones Josselyn described. Centuries of profligate hunting practices have made them wary. Paranoia is now part of their DNA.

The turkey was able to be saved in part because it was so symbolic. Benjamin Franklin once satirically argued that the wild turkey should be our national bird, which turkey conservationist instantly picked up to help their cause. And it doesn’t bug me in the least that they did that.

However, the prairie chicken folks haven’t been quite as successful at capturing the imaginations of the American public. If only they would use the story of the heath hen to their advantage to talk about the importance of these unique birds to our nation’s history, we might be able to have another native game bird success story.

If we believe we are saving our founding bird by preserving prairie chickens, then we will have the support necessary to preserve them for generations to come.

Love America, save the prairie chickens.

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This one shouldn’t be too hard.


The answer.

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