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Dodo Birds – A Misunderstood Extinction Story

Animals in History | September 7, 2018

(Raphus cucullatus), Columbidae. Artwork by Kevin Lyles. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Although they are extinct, dodo birds live on in many of our sayings and phrases. “Dead as a dodo,” “Gone the way of the dodo”, “dumb as a dodo bird,” and “the last of the dodos” are just a few. Most of us know very little about the bird whose name has come to symbolize something that is outdated, ineffective, and useless. In reality, the dodo bird was not the clumsy, bumbling, stupid animal that has been depicted in pop culture, most notably in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The dodo bird was the unfortunate victim of man’s environmental impact and has served as a case study for extinction. 

Yes, Dodo Birds Really Once Existed

Dodos were real. The tubby, flightless bird, which is most closely related to the pigeon, once made its home on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, to the east of Madagascar. Fossil records and early drawings of the bird show that it was around three feet tall and probably weighed 30 to 40 pounds. Drawings and paintings made from live specimens show that the bird most likely had gray-brown feathers, yellow feet and beaks, and a naked head. Early observations of the dodo bird claim that the bird laid only a single egg in its nest. It probably ate the native fruits found on the island. 

Dutch Sailors First Reported Seeing Dodo Birds in 1598

Dutch sailors and explorers traveling through the Indian Ocean in search of spices and silks were the first Europeans to encounter the dodo bird. They noted that the large and slow flightless bird was easy to catch and contained enough meat to feed several men. Mauritius quickly became a popular stop on the Indian Ocean trade routes because sailors could be guaranteed to get some fresh meat, a tasty treat after months of sea rations. 

The Dodos Extinction was Rapid

Over-hunting by European sailors quickly depleted the dodo population on the island. Because the bird only produced one offspring at a time, the species could not bounce back. Add to that the fact that sailors to the island also introduced invasive predators – pigs and dogs -- and illnesses to the island’s ecosystem, and we can see why the dodo birds died out. The last known, credible sighting of the bird was in 1662, just 64 years after it was discovered by Europeans. 

1601 map of a bay on Mauritius, the small D on the far right side is where dodos were found

Some People Thought the Dodo was a Myth

Sailors stopping at the island of Mauritius in the latter part of the 17th century did not find the big, flightless bird that they had heard so much about. They didn’t realize that the animal had once existed, but had gone extinct. In fact, the concept of extinction was a fairly new idea and not widely accepted. Instead, they assumed that the stories they were told of the dodo bird were just that…stories. For more than a century, people assumed the dodo bird was just a legend or a myth. 

Scientists Rediscovered the Extinct Bird in the 19th Century

A number of live dodo birds had been sent back to Europe for study in the early 1600s. As the age of science dawned in the 19th century, many of the preserved dodo specimens were brought out of attics and dusty museum basements and re-examined. Charles Darwin had published his ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species in 1859 and the scientific community was debating his ideas of extinction, evolution, and survival of the fittest. They concluded that, because the dodo bird did not survive, it was not the fittest. From then on, the dodo bird had the erroneous reputation for being slow, dumb, and unable to adapt to its environment. In reality, modern researchers studying the animal believe it was well-suited for its habitat. 

John Tenniel's illustration of the Dodo from Alice in Wonderland.

The Dodo Lives on in Memory

The dodo bird, although long extinct, remains in our collective memories. The animal was the first to symbolize extinction, but even before it “went the way of the dodo”, the bird was featured in European literature. It was an example of the strange and exotic species that could be found in far away, unexplored lands. Lewis Carroll, who used to frequent the Oxford Museum to view the dodo skeletons on display, included the bird in his classic book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Today, the dodo is a symbol of Mauritius and appears on the county’s coat of arms and on its coins. And the dodo has invaded our vernacular. When we talk about obsolete things like pay phones and MySpace, we comment that they have “gone the way of the dodo.” 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.