An astonishment a day- 
drives your depression away...

Gigantic pigeons.

On Mauritius, an island lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 800 km East from Madagascar, isolated from any other land mass for many millions of years, there once lived a huge bird. The islands of the Mascarene Archipelago, of which the largest is Mauritius, were visited by the Arabs or the Portuguese at the start of the second millennium, however a precise description of the bird was prepared only towards the end of the XVI century by Dutch members of the flotilla commanded by Vice-Admiral Wybrant van Warwick (1598). The report first appeared in print in 1599 in London. 

The attached illustration is taken from this publication. The Dutch noticed on the island, apart from the great variety of birds and tortoises, a very peculiar creature - a huge bird, one and half times bigger than a swan (some descriptions say twice as big), that could not fly as instead of wings it had only three symbolic feathers, similar to the quill that were used for writing at that time. The round body was decorated with a few curly feathers that suggested the signs of a tail. They had massive legs, as all flightless birds and a large head that looked as if it was covered with a cap. Hunting them was easy, and this is probably where their Portuguese name originated - dodo - idiot. The Dutch ethymology of dodo relates to their heaviness - it means 'fat bottom'. 

At the time sea voyages would bring back more interesting memoirs of the foreign countries and islands, and so a couple of live dodo were brought back to Europe. Unfortunately, not long after, they all died and all that is left of them are random bones and incomplete skeletons in various museums. Painters became interested in the strange bird, and there are some quite intricate drawings and paintings depicting the dodo. Roeland Savery, in his oil painting (1626) depicting the inhabitants of paradise, did not hesitate to include this strange bird. 

As the sea voyagers were always partial to meat, many birds ended up in the pot. The opinions of the meat varied greatly - some loved it, while others loathed it. It why the Dutch called dodo a wallowbirdes, which means abominable bird. It had the strange property that the longer you boiled it, the tougher it got. 

We will never again be able to taste a dodo, and we also will never know its ways of life. At an incredibly fast pace, over the period of some decades from when the Dutch first came, the dodo became extinct. The last dodo was seen in 1662 (others say it was 1681). Currently, we do not even know what sort of environment it thrived in on the island, or what it fed on, or how it reared its young. 

Huge interest among biologists was concentrated on systematic position of the giant. When in the 1840's the Copenhage naturalist John Theodore Reinhardt suggested that the closest relative of the dodo was the pigeon, he was ridiculed. It seemed hard to find any two more dissimilar birds, but he was actually right. Currently it is accepted that the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) belongs to the now extinct family of dronts, order Columbiformes, to which the common house pigeon also belongs to. 

Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)

Length - approx 72 cm
Height - approx 72 cm
Weight - over 10 kg, can reach 22 kg
Beak - 13 cm
Skull - 20cm
Voice - unknown
Feeding - probably fruits and seeds
Breeding behavior - unknown



Lastly, there is a monument dedicated to the dodo. It can be seen at the International Airport of the Republic of Mauritius. There's not many birds that have such an honor... 

And for biologists, the dodo is an important lesson - that a prospering species can be entirely wiped out in such a short time. 




(C) (selected from publications of 
 R. Antoszewski

Titirangi, Auckland, 
New Zeland

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February  2003