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Our Bird – The Dodo


We have always thought of the Dodo as being a stupid bird because it was so quickly eliminated from the food chain. This has indubitably been the most popular understanding of the word so far.  But just as foxes aren’t necessarily cunning, beavers hardworking, bats evil, or bears loveable, it has been shown that Dodos, birds endemic to Mauritius, were not necessarily fat, lazy, and stupid as it was and is commonly believed.

The earliest accounts of the Dodo date back to the 15th century, where Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck, sent on a voyage of discovery by Mauritz van Nassau, Prince of Orange, recorded the presence of Dodos that he described as being twice as big as swans, then named Walghstocks or Wallowbirdes, which stood for “loathsome birds”.

In 1848, Hugh Strickland, an English ornithologist published The Dodo and its Kindred, where he spoke about “…those brave old voyagers, who in the infancy of nautical and medical science, encountered a vast amount of peril and suffering and yet found means to observe and record the natural wonders which came in their way.”

The reason a harmless bird as the Dodo was able to thrive on the island of Mauritius was precisely because of the absence of predatory animals such as crocodiles, snakes, and hungry wolves—this being the observation made by Steven van der Hagen in 1607, during his visit to the island. Both he and Pieter Verhoeven, who was also a visitor at around that time, mentioned catching “Dodaersen [another term given to Dodos] everyday in the woods”. But with the growing traffic of visitors to the island, it has been suggested rather recently that rats escaping from aboard ships had most likely turned into a source of threat to Dodo eggs and young chicks. There were also monkeys brought by the Portuguese that posed another challenge to the continuation of the species of Dodos. Others have blamed the introduction of pigs on the island in the 1600s, which further exacerbated the situation. Pigs, it is said, foraged on ground level fruit, digging up roots and tubers, thus creating the competition for food for Dodos, and may have also tampered with Dodo nests and eggs. Equally, forests receded as the island became populated and was subjected to incidental development. In the 1650s for example, the island’s population was 200, comprising runaway slaves, former sailors, planters, slaves, convicts, and invalids. The Dutch who had then been the rulers of the island abandoned it in 1658, principally due to problems like unproductive crops, invasion by pests, and violent storms.

In 1662, Andries Stokram, who survived his ship being foundered about 193 km south-east of Mauritius, eventually returned to Holland and described the Dodo as being as big as a swan, adding that “It has a big head with pelt and in the place of wings (which they do not have), there are 3 to 4 black plumes and instead of tails, they have 4 to 5 grey curly feathers on the backside.”

After a change in policy, the Dutch decided to re-settle in Mauritius in 1664, and this time, ebony trees on the island caught their attention and became duly exploited for trade. During that period, there were accounts of how wild pigs were violent and attacked young goats, and fed on tortoise and bird eggs. Forests were cleared to make way for new roads and it is even reported ebony trees were cut down in thousands for a 16 km long road to be paved from the forests of Flacq to the sea.

When Did the Dodo Really Disappear?

Little is known on this matter. Simon, a runaway slave is said to have spotted a Dodo twice in the eleven years he had been free, that is between 1663 and 1674. The Dodo was also confused with another bird, the Red Rail, so that reports of its sightings are now considered dubious. Hence one of the supposed last sightings of the Dodo in 1681, by Benjamin Harry, Chief Mate of the Berkley Castle, is also deemed untrustworthy. However, Isaac Johannes Lamotius, who ruled Mauritius between 1677 and 1692, wrote in detail about Dodo sightings in that period, and it is said that he could certainly not have confounded it with the Red Rail as he was both a scholar and an amateur natural historian.

The Dutch remained in Mauritius until 1710 and by then, it is clear that the Dodo was already extinct. The bird is said to have lived less than one hundred years beside Man. The English took over ruling the island soon afterwards.

By 1778, it is recounted that when an inquiry was made among the oldest inhabitants of Mauritius, none could recall any information about the Dodo. Studies were carried out later, by people with diverse backgrounds, ranging from sheer enthusiasts to natural historians. Later, the Natural History Society was met with disappointment when they failed in their attempts to find bones and other remains of the Dodo. It was rightly concluded thereafter that the soil was not conducive to storing them,
so that the heavy rains would have eventually carried and washed everything into rivers. In due time, a marsh situated at about three miles from Mahebourg was singled out for eventual exploration. At around the same period, in 1865, Harry Higginson discovered bones and other debris being dug out by workers, who were preparing the land for the very first railway line that was being constructed on the island. Upon examination, the results revealed that the material excavated indeed belonged to the Dodo. More bones were removed thereafter and were sent to museums at York, Leeds, Liverpool, and later all over
the world.

It was habitual long ago for sailors to carry unique plant and animal species back to their homelands. Thus the Chinese Admiral Zheng was said to have brought a giraffe from the East Coast of Africa to the court of the Emperor of China in 1414. These practices were not to spare the Dodo, so that it is reported that seventeen live Dodos were taken as far as Italy, Denmark, Holland, Prague, India, and Japan. While it is not certain whether the birds managed to reach their destinations, there are reports of live Dodos being sighted in Holland, England, and India. Thus in 1626, a portrait of the Dodo was made by the Dutch Adrian van de Venne—it was then called a Walghvogel, which stood for “Nauseous Bird” because of how it made one feel after being consumed. Emmanuel Altham, of the East India Company, was sent to Mauritius in 1628 and was said to have shipped a few presents to his family in Essex, England shortly afterwards. In a letter dispatched together with the presents, he mentions having sent them a jar of ginger for his sister, beads for his cousins, and a bird called the Dodo, adding “if it remains alive”.

Representations of the Dodo are surprisingly incongruent. There are disagreements about its shape, size, and the colour of its feathers, among other aspects of its features. In 1993, Andrew Kitchener, Curator of the Royal Musuem of Scotland tended out the explanation that the Dodo was painted after long voyages aboard ships, where it was probably wrongly or overfed, kept in large cages, deprived of exercise, so that it arrived on land, looking bloated. His conclusion was that in the forests of
Mauritius, in its natural habitat, the Dodo was “lithe and active”. It may have undergone a “seasonal fat cycle to overcome shortages of food, but never to the extent that those wonderful oil paintings suggest.” Kitchener went on to add that “Sadly, it is from these portraits of the last captive individuals that most people have gained their impressions of the world’s largest and most famous pigeon.”

Today however, the Dodo continues to be associated with dim-wittedness, clumsiness, stupidity. Thus in the third chapter of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll describes a race organised by a Dodo, with no precise finishing point, and marked simply by the Dodo’s arbitrary announcement that it is over and that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”. Moreover in the animated feature Ice Age, released in 2001, a group of Dodos are shown to be fighting to “preserve the Dodo way of life”, knowing that tough times will be ahead. Their strategy for surviving, however, consists of preserving three watermelons, which they soon destroy in a game of football. The Dodos eventually become extinct after falling off cliffs and into lava pits. Whatever the case may be, the Dodo today remains an important icon for Mauritians. Printed on stamps and matchboxes, carved out of wood and sold as key chains, and presented in a variety of forms as curios and memorabilia for sale to tourists, the Dodo continues to be part and parcel of Mauritian lives, figuring among the most prominent symbols associated with Mauritius.