11 Things We Know About the Dodo

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Wikimedia Commons

The first thing one must accept when trying to learn about the dodo is that we’ll probably never know that much about the flightless bird, which died out over 300 years ago in one of the first—if not the first—man-made extinctions. Still, careful study of surviving documents and specimens, as well as a little science, have revealed a bit about the dodo. 

1. The Dodo lived on Mauritius.

A map of the Mascarene Islands, circa 1780: Reunion (then Ile. Bourbon, left), Mauritius (then Ile. de France, center) and Rodrigues (right). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Part of a chain of three islands east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was discovered by the Portuguese in 1507; they set up a base but soon abandoned the island. But it was the Dutch who named it, after Prince Maurice van Nassau, in 1598—which was also when they found the dodo. Vice Admiral Wybran van Warwijck described the bird in his journal: 

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.

In 1634, Sir Thomas Herbert (who had visited Mariutius in 1627) described the dodo in his book A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille into Afrique and the Greater Asia:

First here only ... is generated the Dodo ... her body is round and fat, few weigh less than fifty pound. It is reputed more for wonder than for food, greasie stomackes may seeke 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. 

He drew the bird, too.

2. Its moniker came from the Portuguese.

The Dutch called it walghvodel, or “disgusting bird,” because of the toughness of its flesh. “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,” van Warwijck wrote in 1598. But the name that stuck, according to Clara Pinto-Correia in her book Return of the Crazy Bird, was derived from the ancient Portuguese word dondo (the modern word is doido) meaning idiot or fool. Pinto-Correia also says that by the end of the 17th century, there were a staggering 78 words for the bird. It had a number of scientific names—Carl Linneaus tried to name it Didus ineptus, or "inept dodo," in 1766—but the one that stuck was Raphus cucullatus (Latin for "bustard" and "hooded," respectively), which was given to the dodo in 1760.

3. It may have been monogomous.

It was described as "loyal to its mate and dedicated to its chicks." They also may have lain only one egg at a time in ground nests. That slow reproduction (as well as the fact that the eggs made for easy meals for predators) spelled disaster for the species.

4. Though placid and unafraid of humans, the Dodo was capable of defending itself.

In Crazy Bird, Pinto-Correia relates the slaughter of the dodos, which was occurring long before anyone settled at Mauritius; in one account, sailors killed as many as 25 birds to bring back to the ship. But there is one description of the birds fighting back: "One sailor wrote that if the men were not careful, the birds inflicted severe wounds upon their aggressors with their powerful beaks," Pinto-Correia writes. 

5. Dodos went to Europe.

No one knows for sure how many—Julian Pender Hume, an avian palentologist at the Natural History Museum in London, estimates that four or five were shipped with only one or two arriving alive, while others estimate that as many as 14 or 17 birds may have made the trip. But there is evidence at least a few made it there alive. One may have been brought to Europe by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck, who sent the bird to Prague and Hapsburg Rudolf II, monarch of Austria and King of Bohemia and Hungary, in 1600 (more on that in a bit).

Theologian and writer Sir Hamon L’Estrange saw one dodo, displayed as a public attraction, in London in 1683. He wrote:

It was kept in a chamber, and was a great fowle somewhat bigger than the largest Turkey Cock, and so legged and footed, but stouter and thicker and of a more erect shape, coloured before like the breast of a young cock fesan, and on the back a dunn or deare colour. The keeper called it a Dodo, and in the ende of a chymney in the chamber there lay a heape of large pebble stones, wherof hee gave it many in our sight, some as big as nutmegs, and the keeper told us she eats them (conducing to digestion).

6. The dodo was illustrated as fat and awkward, but it (probably) wasn’t.

When we imagine a dodo, we often think of a depiction from one painting in particular—the one at the top of this post. It was created by Rudolf II's one-time court painter, Roelandt Savery, in 1626 (and gifted to the British Museum by George Edwards in 1759). According to Pinto-Correia, Savery left the court after Rudolf's death and afterward often painted the bird from memory, which probably led to inaccuracies. It's also not known if Savery painted a live bird or created his paintings from contemporary accounts and dead specimens.

At any rate, scientists believe the birds were probably drawn from overfed captive subjects or from overstuffed specimens; it's also possible that in the wild, the birds' weight fluctuated dramatically depending on the availability of food.

The first reconstruction of a dodo was put together in 1865 by Richard Owen at the Natural History Museum using fossilized bones and an outline of the bird from one of Savery's paintings. His reconstruction and a scientific description were published, but three years later, Owens realized he had been wrong. It was too late to change public perception, though. Modern evidence suggests that the dodo would have been more upright, with a thinner neck and breast—because flightless birds don't need large muscles in the breast.

7. The last Dodo was seen in July 1681.

Englishman Benjamin Harry, first mate on the British vessel Berkeley Castle, was the last person to spot a dodo on Mauritius and write about it:

Now having a little respitt I will make a little descripti: of ye island first of its Producks and yns of itts parts—ffirst of winged and feathered ffowle ye less passant, are Dodos whose fflesh is very hard, a small sort of Geese reasona...

Sometime after that—just eight decades after the Dutch landed—the bird succumbed to exctinction brought on by hunting, habitat destruction, and the introduction of invasive species like rats and pigs

8. There are no complete specimens from a single bird.

The mummified skin (top) and the dissected skull of the Oxford Dodo. Images courtesy the Oxford University Natural History Museum via this PDF.

The dodo skeletons you see at museums have been assembled from fossilized remains. At one point, though, there was a complete specimen. The bird belonged to John Tradescant and was gifted to the Oxford University Natural History Museum in the 1680s. Today, only the head—which still has soft tissue—and the foot remain; the museum burned the rest of the bird on January 8, 1755 because of severe decay, unaware that it was the last complete specimen in the world.

9. And many people didn’t believe it actually existed.

You can hardly blame naturalists living 150 years after the dodo's extinction for believing it was a creature made up by sailors. As Hugh Edwin Strickland and Alexander Melville wrote while making their case for the existence of the bird in The Dodo and Its Kindred, published in 1848:

So rapid and complete was their extinction that the vague descriptions given of them by early navigators were long regarded as fabulous or exaggerated, and these birds ... became associated in the minds of many person with the Griffin and the Phoenix of mythological antiquity.

10. It was basically a big pigeon.

During its life and after its extinction, scientists couldn't make up their minds just what kind of bird the dodo was—they grouped it with chickens, vultures, eagles, penguins, or cranes. But a few scientists, including Johannes Theodor Reinhardt, Hugh Edwin Strickland, Alexander Gordon Melville, and Samuel Cabot, thought the bird more closely resembled young pigeons—and they were right. In 2007, biologist Beth Shapiro performed analysis on a DNA sample carefully extracted from the leg bone of the Oxford remains and found that the dodo is a distant relative of the pigeon.

11. It had two cousins that also went extinct.

Wikimedia Commons

One was the solitaire (Pezophaps solitarius)—so named because it was rarely seen with other birds—a gray and brown flightless bird with a long neck, about the size of a swan, that lived on Rodrigues. It was wiped out by the 1760s. The other was the so-called "white dodo" of Réunion (Didus borbonicus, later called the Réunion Sacred Ibis,Threskiornis solitarius), a yellowish-white bird with black-tipped wings. In an account from 1614 (published in 1626), English sailor John Tatton described the bird as "a great fowl of the bigness of a Turkie, very fat, and so short-winged that they cannot fly, being white, and in a manner tame ... In general these birds are in such abundance in these islands that ten sailors can amass in one day enough to feed fourty." At least a couple of the birds were shipped to Europe in 1685, but after that, there are no more accounts; in an 1801 survey of Réunion, none of the birds were found.

Buy Clara Pinto-Correia's book, Return of the Crazy Bird—an invaluable resource for this article—for more about the dodo.

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September 11, 2013 - 2:11pm
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