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The Dodo bird is likely one of the most famous extinct animals. There’s even the well-known saying, “go the way of the Dodo,” which essentially refers to someone or something that will become outdated or obsolete.
But what exactly happened to Dodo birds? How did they become extinct, and when? We answer these questions and others that you might have about the unfortunate Dodo.
The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) came from the island of Mauritius, which is located in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar and off the southeast coast of Africa.
They were flightless birds whose closest relative was the Rodrigues solitaire from the island of Rodrigues, also in the Indian Ocean. But as of 1790, this large bird is also extinct. They are thought to have been brownish in color and were taller and slimmer than the Dodo, with a shorter beak and smaller head.
There was also the Réunion solitaire from the island of Réunion that was a relative to the other solitaire and the Dodo but also was extinct by 1746. The Réunion is thought to have been a white version of the Dodo.
These three species are related to pigeons, and the closest living genetic relative of the Dodo is considered to be the Nicobar Pigeon, which has a “Near Threatened” status.
Now, while pigeons might be related, there truly has never been and probably never will be a bird quite like the Dodo.
These birds were about 3 feet tall and weighed about 50 pounds. They had blue-gray or brownish feathers, with a large head and a 9-inch-long blackish bill with a reddish hooked tip. They were flightless, but they did have tiny wings and stocky yellow legs, and their tail was made up of white curly feathers.
It’s believed that Dodos became flightless because their ancestors had no predators and access to plenty of food, so they had no reason to leave the island.
There are several theories about how the Dodo got its name, but no one knows for certain.
The Dutch discovered the Dodo, and one theory is that Dodo comes from the word, “dodaars,” which is the name of a Dutch bird called the Dabchick or Little Grebe. These wading birds have short feathers on their hind end and are a little clumsy like the Dodo, so this is a possibility.
Furthermore, in David Quammen’s book, “Song of the Dodo,” the author proposes that the term Dodo came about because of the bird’s call, which was a pigeon-like sound that sounded like “doo-doo.”
The most common belief is that it comes from the Portuguese word, “doudo,” which loosely translates to simple or foolish. This suggestion was actually put forth by Sir Thomas Herbert, an Englishman who was the first person to write the word, “Dodo,” in 1643, so this one is potentially the most likely explanation.
This 2003 study has dated the Dodo’s extinction to around 1690, although the last reported sighting was in 1662.
While the Dutch were not the first that visited Mauritius (that was the Portuguese), they were the first to claim the island in 1598, which they later settled.
When the Dutch settled Mauritius, they not only hunted the Dodo relentlessly, but they also brought animals to the island that had not been there previously: pigs, sheep, dogs, rats, monkeys, goats, and deer.
Some of these animals would have competed with Dodos for food, and Dodo eggs and chicks would have been eaten by the others, particularly the pigs. Dodos laid their eggs on the ground and quite safely until the Dutch settlements, since they didn’t have any natural predators until that point.
Then, there was the loss of their natural resources and habitat as the settlers continued to settle the island. Habitat destruction, hunting, and foreign animals all led to the rapid demise of the Dodo.
Other than being flightless and extinct, the other famous aspect about the Dodo is also what supposedly made it extinct. The overall theory for a long time was that the Dodo was fat, lazy, and stupid and essentially allowed itself to be killed off. But this isn’t true.
There are experts who have said that Dodos were probably not as obese as previously believed. Andrew Kitchener, the principal curator of vertebrates at the National Museums of Scotland, argued that Dodos were likely to have been athletic birds that were fattened up by their captors, which is why the illustrations of the Dodo always show a plumper bird than what was accurate.
These birds were in their own way, though, rather trusting because they didn’t have any natural predators. When humans showed up on their island, they were not afraid, so they became easy prey. It didn’t help that they couldn’t fly from danger.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any whole species or skeletons that have been preserved. The only stuffed Dodo had been at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, London, but it was destroyed by mites and other bugs, with the exception of its head and one foot. The University of Oxford has the Dodo head, which includes a beak and soft tissue and the skeletal foot.
Prague has a Dodo beak and Copenhagen a skull, but there isn’t much else. The remains of the Dodo are quite scarce today.
The most complete specimens can be found in Mauritius and Durban, South Africa. The Mauritius skeleton is thought to be from one individual Dodo, whereas the Durban skeleton is believed to be a combination of different bones from different birds.
One of the most famous depictions of the Dodo can be found in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” where interestingly, it was one of the smarter characters.
Dodos have also shown up in the Ice Age movies and games as comic relief and even in Looney Tunes as the Yoyo Dodo, who was a silly bird from Wackyland.
The band Genesis wrote a song called, “Dodo/Lurker,” which is about human’s propensity to kill everything in sight.
The Dodo has also appeared in Jurassic Park video games and made an appearance in the Harry Potter universe as a Diricawl, where it turns out to be a magical bird (known to us Muggles as the Dodo) that can disappear and reappear at will to escape danger. Too bad this isn’t true!
You might also be interested in: 12 Largest Birds of North America (with Pictures)
It’s heartbreaking that we all missed the opportunity to see these fantastic birds in person today. The unfortunate truth is that according to some reports, we could see 1 million species that around today become extinct within the next few decades.
This is a frightening concept! Can you imagine a world without the orangutan, or the blue whale, or the elephant? these species are all endangered, and we don’t want to see them all “as dead as a Dodo.”
The sad truth is that humans are completely responsible for the demise of the Dodo. If these birds had been treated with more compassion and respect, perhaps we could enjoy the Dodo outside of museums and history books.
You might also be interested in: 10 Rarest Duck Breeds (With Pictures)
Featured Image Credit: Life_in_a_pixel, Shutterstock
Kathryn was a librarian in a previous lifetime and is currently a writer about all things birds. When she was a child, thanks to her love of animals she hoped to work in zoos or with wildlife in some way. She's not strong in the sciences, unfortunately, so she uses her time to research and write about all kinds of birds and animals, and hopes to bring that detailed knowledge to OpticsMag.
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