Saturday, March 29, 2014


Everyone has heard of dodo birds, but nobody alive today has seen one.  There is a very good reason for this, which is that dodos went completely extinct back in 1682.  So when a person says something is "as dead as a dodo," that means it is really and truly gone, and it will never come back again.  Well, unless scientists figure out how to clone new dodos using old dodo DNA.  Which they are working on, so you never know what will happen.

Frederick William Frohawk (1861-1946)
Plate 24 from Rothschild's Extinct Birds (1907)
From the picture by Roelant Savery, with alterations

Okay, so now to start at the beginning of the dodo bird's story.  Way back when the earth and all the animals and plants were evolving, the dodos ended up living on the island of Mauritius, which is east of the island of Madagascar, which is east of Africa.  After a while, dodos stopped needing to do any flying, so they just walked everywhere, and their wings turned into little feathered nubs.  The dodos ate fruit and nuts that fell off the trees, and they made nests on the ground, and they didn't have to worry about predators because there weren't any.

Then in 1505, some Portuguese adventurers became the first humans to set foot on Mauritius.  They were amazed to see the dodos because they had never seen birds that looked quite like that.  It was easy to catch dodos because they weren't afraid of people.  So the sailors killed some and tried eating them, with mixed reviews.  Some people thought they were pretty yummy, and others claimed the meat was too dark and greasy.

Contemporary sketches of dodos, made in 1602
during the voyage of the VOC Gelderland

The earliest descriptions of the dodo birds were written by members of the Dutch East India Company. Here's one from the  1598 journal of Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck:

Blue parrots are very numerous there, as well as other birds; among which are a kind, conspicuous for their size, larger than our swans, with huge heads only half covered with skin as if clothed with a hood. These birds lack wings, in the place of which 3 or 4 blackish feathers protrude. The tail consists of a few soft incurved feathers, which are ash coloured. These we used to call 'Walghvogel', for the reason that the longer and oftener they were cooked, the less soft and more insipid eating they became. Nevertheless their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour and easily masticated.

The word Walghvogel means "wallow bird," and it was used to refer to the loathsome flavor of the meat.  Given a choice, the sailors preferred to eat pigeons and parrots.

"What did you just call me?"

It's hard to know exactly where the word dodo came from.  Some people think it came from the Dutch word dodoor, which means "sluggard."  But others believe it is more likely that dodo comes from Dodaars, which means "fat-arse" or "knot-arse," describing the knot of feathers on the bird's rear end.  Other theories are that the name came from the Portuguese doudo, meaning "crazy," or that the birds had a call that sounded like "doo-doo."

This 1638 painting by Cornelis Saftleven
may be one of the last pictures made of a live dodo.
It is in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam.

We don't have any complete specimens of dodos, so we don't know exactly what they looked like.  Mostly, they were described as having plumage that was sort of gray or brown, with primary feathers and a tuft at the rear that were lighter in color.  Dodos were probably about 3 feet tall and had a weight range from 23 to 47 pounds.  It's likely that they lived in the drier coastal woods of Mauritius.
The closest genetic relative to the dodo was the Rodrigues Solitaire, which is also extinct.  The closest living relative is the Nicobar Pigeon.

Here's a description of the dodo bird written in 1634 by Sir Thomas Herbert in A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille into Afrique and the Greater Asia:

It is  reputed more for wonder than for food, greasie stomackes may seek after them, but to  the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment.  Her visage darts forth melancholy, as sensible of Nature's injurie in framing so great a body to be guided with complementall wings, so small and impotent, that they serve only to prove her bird.
The halfe of her head is naked seeming couered with a fine vaile, her bill is crooked downwards, in midst is the trill [nostril], from which part to the end tis a light green, mixed with pale yellow tincture; her eyes are small and like to Diamonds, round and rowling; her clothing downy feathers, her train three small plumes, short and inproportionable, her legs suiting her body, her pounces sharpe, her appetite strong and greedy. Stones and iron are digested, which description will better be conceived in her representation.

"Edwards' Dodo" was painted by Roelant Savery in the late 1620s.
It was owned by ornithologist George Edwards,
who later gave it to the British Museum.

People always used to think of dodos as fat and clumsy, but now scientists are saying this idea may be wrong.  Old European drawings and paintings of dodos were probably based on overfed captive birds or else on stuffed specimens that were not done very well.  Studies on the strength of dodo leg bones show that the bird could actually run quite fast.  When it needed to defend itself, the bird probably used its big beak as a weapon.

The dodo was not the only bird to go extinct on Mauritius.  Others include the Red Rail, Broad-billed Parrot, Mascarene Grey Parakeet, Mauritius Blue Pigeon, Mauritius Owl, Mascarene Coot, Mauritian Shelduck, Mauritian Duck, and Mauritius Night Heron.  Besides that, two types of tortoises, a boa, a snail, a flying fox, and two varieties of plants became extinct on the island.

The population of Mauritius during the 17th century was never more than 50 people, so the dodos did not go extinct as a direct result of people killing them.  Instead, what happened was that the people brought non-native animals with them, such as dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and crab-eating monkeys.  These animals ate the eggs out of dodo nests.  At the same time, settlers were cutting down the trees and destroying the dodos' habitat. But the fact is that the dodo population may have already been pretty small before humans ever showed up on Mauritius  Which would partly explain why the birds went extinct so quickly. There is some disagreement about the exact year that the dodo became extinct, but it might have been 1682.  Or maybe 1688.  Or most definitely between 1688 and 1715.

Original illustration of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
by John Tenniel, 1865

Lewis Carroll put a dodo character in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that is probably the main thing that made dodos into such famous symbols of extinction.  The dodo still appears today in popular fiction, and it is used to promote the protection of endangered species.  In Mauritius, the dodo serves as a mascot on many products and as a watermark on Mauritian rupee banknotes.

Painting by Jacob Hoefnagel, early 1600s,
of a specimen in the collection
of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague

In closing, I will share a silly poem about the dodo that Hilaire Belloc published in 1896 in his Bad Child's Book of Beasts.

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground--
The Dodo is not there!

The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now for ever dumb--
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.


  1. Great post on Dodos and a lovely blog. My dog Bingo turned me on to it!

    1. Dogs can always sniff out the best blogs, so I'm glad Bingo turned you on to mine. I looked at your Curious Portraits, and I really like them. Uncle Omelette is especially funny!
      Sincerely, Dorrie