As Dead As A Dodo

The dodo was a flightless bird that was endemic to the island of Mauritius until it became extinct in the latter part of the 17th century.

Painting Of A Dodo

Like many birds that evolved in isolation, the dodo had few natural predators and was completely fearless of humans. So when Dutch sailors arrived on Mauritius in the 1500s it was easy prey from both humans and introduced species such as dogs, cats, rats and in particular pigs and crab-eating macaques which not only ransacked dodos’ nests for their eggs but also competed with their food source.

Humans also destroyed much of the forest habitat of dodos although because the human population of Mauritius remained fairly small at just 50 individuals, it is likely that the introduced invasive species contributed more to the birds’ extinction than direct human activity.

It is thought that the dodo population was fairly scarce even before the Dutch arrived and although they had survived thousands of years of volcanic activity and climate change, a study in 2005, for example, found the remains of a large number of dodos that had been killed by a flash flood. Because the dodo was confined to such a localized area, any ecological disasters such as this would have had a big impact on the total population.

The last official sighting of a dodo was in 1662 recorded by Volkert Evertsz, a Dutch sailor who had been shipwrecked on Amber Island, a small islet off Mauritius.

He reported:

“These animals on our coming up to them stared at us and remained quiet where they stand, not knowing whether they had wings to fly away or legs to run off, and suffering us to approach them as close as we pleased. Amongst these birds were those which in India they call Dod-aersen (being a kind of very big goose); these birds are unable to fly, and instead of wings, they merely have a few small pins, yet they can run very swiftly. We drove them together into one place in such a manner that we could catch them with our hands, and when we held one of them by its leg, and that upon this it made a great noise, the others all on a sudden came running as fast as they could to its assistance, and by which they were caught and made prisoners also.”

However, there were other unverified sightings of dodos a few years later and they were not officially declared extinct until the 19th century as due to religious reasons extinction was not then thought possible.

Of all extinct birds, the dodo is probably the most widely recognized with the expression “as dead as a dodo” widely used to mean something that has become obsolete.

The dodo was popularized in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which the bird conducts a chaotic Caucus race, a satirical mockery of the political caucus system. The dodo is a caricature of the author whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and who, because of his stammer, would supposedly introduce himself as “Do-do-dodgson”.

The painting above is by Roelant Savery (1576 – buried 25 February 1639) and is one of the most famous images of a dodo. It was painted in 1626 and at one point was owned by the ornithologist George Edwards, who later gave it to the British Museum. Edward’s Dodo, as it is commonly known, is now exhibited in the Natural History Museum and has given rise to the standard depiction of a dodo.


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