South Bergenite: Of Heath Hens and Passenger Pigeons

Jim Wright, who keeps this blog, also writes a nature column every other week for The South Bergenite. Here is his latest column — on extinct birds seen in the Meadowlands more than 100 years ago..

DeKorte Park offers some amazing sights – from spectacular birds to beautiful sunsets – but the rarest of all has been right under my nose all along.

IMG_8223-3Indeed, I have walked past it dozen of times during my work for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission without giving it a second look because — truth be told — it gave me the creeps.

The “it” is a Plexiglas case with 35 taxidermy birds of 28 different species. The display is located just inside the auditorium in the Meadowlands Environment Center.

 The creatures are all more than 100 years old at this point, and a bit bedraggled. The birds were all killed in the district in the late 1800s, and donated by Caroline Geigold of Secaucus decades ago.

Many of these birds would have inhabited the Atlantic White Cedar Forest that once grew in parts of the Meadowlands.

My attitude about these taxidermy birds has always been dismissive. Why would I look at dead birds in a display case – especially when DeKorte Park offers so many beautiful live birds?

But earlier this winter, prize-winning nature author and historian Scott Weidensaul presented a program in the auditorium. Before the talk, he took the time to study the taxidermy menagerie, and then remarked to me, “You’ve got some amazing birds in there.”

Two species in particular caught his eye – Passenger Pigeon and Heath Hen. The species have two things in common: Both were once commonplace in the Meadowlands, and both have now been extinct for more than 75 years.

More follows.

The Passenger pigeon’s demise is better known. When Europeans began arriving America in the 1600s, it is thought that there were more than 3 billion Passenger Pigeons, but they became such a popular source of food that they were slowly driven to extinction.  

Weidensaul was even more taken with the two taxidermy Heath Hens. Although they were also once plentiful, Weidensaul believes that fewer taxidermy examples of them exist. The Meadowlands Commission is fortunate to have both a male and female.

But the unusual taxidermy birds don’t stop with there. As NJMC naturalist Mike Newhouse points out, the Upland Plover (now called an Upland Sandpiper) is endangered. A bird labeled “Sandpiper” is thought to be a threatened sandpiper species, the Red Knot.

The Red-Headed Woodpecker is also threatened. The Common Moorhen and Virginia Rail are birds of special concern. The Bobwhite and Woodcock are regional priorities – meaning that conservation plans have been adopted to maintain their populations.

The display case also has other birds seldom seen in the Meadowlands these days – the Lapland longspur, the Bohemian Waxwing, the Ruffed grouse and the Scarlet Tanager.

For those keeping score at home, that’s a total of 13 out of the 28 – nearly half — that are now extinct, endangered, threatened, or seldom seen.

In a sense, that’s why the Meadowlands Commission is working so hard to preserve and create habitat.

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