1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dodo

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DODO (from the Portuguese Dóudo, a simpleton), a large bird formerly inhabiting the island of Mauritius, but now extinct—the Didus ineptus of Linnaeus. When, in 1507, the Portuguese discovered the island which we now know as Mauritius they named it Ilha do Cerné, from a notion that it must be the island of that name mentioned by Pliny; but most authors have insisted that it was known to the seamen of that nation as Ilha do Cisne—perhaps but a corruption of Cerne, and brought about by their finding it stocked with large fowls, which, though not aquatic, they likened to swans, the most familiar to them of bulky birds. In 1598 the Dutch, under Van Neck, took possession of the island and renamed it Mauritius. A narrative of this voyage was published, in 1601, if not earlier, and has been often reprinted. Here we have birds spoken of as big as swans or bigger, with large heads, no wings, and a tail consisting of a few curly feathers. The Dutch called them Walgvögels (the word is variously spelled), i.e. nauseous birds, either because no cooking made them palatable, or because this island-paradise afforded an abundance of fare so much superior. De Bry gives two admirably quaint prints of the doings of the Hollanders, and in one of them the Walgvögel appears, being the earliest published representation of its unwieldy form, with a footnote stating that the voyagers brought an example alive to Holland. Among the company there was a draughtsman, and from a sketch of his, Clusius, a few years after, gave a figure of the bird, which he vaguely called “Gallinaceus Gallus peregrinus,” but described rather fully. Meanwhile two other Dutch fleets had visited Mauritius. One of them had rather an accomplished artist on board, and his drawings fortunately still exist (see article Bird). Of the other a journal kept by one of the skippers was subsequently published. This in the main corroborates what has been before said of the birds, but adds the curious fact that they were now called by some Dodaarsen and by others Dronten.[1]

Henceforth Dutch narrators, though several times mentioning the bird, fail to supply any important fact in its history. Their navigators, however, were not idle, and found work for their naturalists and painters. Clusius says that in 1605 he saw at Pauw’s House in Leyden a dodo’s foot,[2] which he minutely describes. In a copy of Clusius’s work in the high school of Utrecht is pasted an original drawing by Van de Venne superscribed “Vera effigies huius avis Walghvögel (quae & a nautis Dodaers propter foedam posterioris partis crassitiem nuncupatur), qualis viua Amsterodamum perlata est ex insula Mauritii. Anno M.DC.XXVI.” Now a good many paintings of the dodo drawn from life by Roelandt Savery (1576-1639) exist; and the paintings by him at Berlin and Vienna—dated 1626 and 1628—as well as the picture by Goiemare, belonging to the duke of Northumberland, dated 1627, may be with greater plausibility than ever considered portraits of a captive bird. It is even probable that this was not the first example painted in Europe. In the private library of the emperor Francis I. of Austria was a series of pictures of various animals, supposed to be by the Dutch artist Hoefnagel, who was born about 1545. One of these represents a dodo, and, if there be no mistake in Von Frauenfeld’s ascription, it must almost certainly have been painted before 1626, while there is reason to think that the original may have been kept in the vivarium of the emperor Rudolf II., and that the portion of a dodo’s head, which was found in the museum at Prague about 1850, belonged to this example. The other pictures by Roelandt Savery, like those in the possession of the Zoological Society of London and others, are undated, but were probably all painted about the same time—1626-1628. The large picture in the British Museum, once belonging to Sir Hans Sloane, by an unknown artist, but supposed to be by Roelandt Savery, is also undated; while the still larger one at Oxford (considered to be by the younger Savery) bears a much later date, 1651. Undated also is a picture in Holland said to be by Pieter Holsteyn.

In 1628 we have the evidence of the first English observer of the bird—one Emanuel Altham, who mentions it in two letters written on the same day from Mauritius to his brother at home (Proc. Zool. Soc. 1874, pp. 447-449). In one he says: “You shall receue ... a strange fowle: which I had at the Iland Mauritius called by ye portingalls a Do Do: which for the rareness thereof I hope wilbe welcome to you.” The passage in the other letter is to the same effect, with the addition of the words “if it liue.” In the same fleet with Altham sailed Sir Thomas Herbert, whose Travels ran through several editions. It is plain that he could not have reached Mauritius till 1629, though 1627 has been usually assigned as the date of his visit. The fullest account he gives of the bird is in his edition of 1638: “The Dodo comes first to a description: here, and in Dygarrois[3] (and no where else, that ever I could see or heare of) is generated the Dodo (a Portuguize name it is, and has reference to her simpleness,) a Bird which for shape and rareness might be call’d a Phoenix (wer’t in Arabia:)” &c. Herbert was weak as an etymologist, but his positive statement, corroborated as it is by Altham, cannot be set aside, and hence we do not hesitate to assign a Portuguese derivation for the word.[4] Herbert also gave a figure of the bird.

Proceeding chronologically we next come upon a curious bit of evidence. This is contained in a MS. diary kept between 1626 and 1640, by Thomas Crossfield of Queen’s College, Oxford, where, under the year 1634, mention is casually made of one Mr Gosling “who bestowed the Dodar (a blacke Indian bird) vpon ye Anatomy school.” Nothing more is known of it. About 1638, Sir Hamon Lestrange tells us, as he walked London streets he saw the picture of a strange fowl hung out on a cloth canvas, and going in to see it found a great bird kept in a chamber “somewhat bigger than the largest Turky cock, and so legged and footed, but shorter and thicker.” The keeper called it a dodo and showed the visitors how his captive would swallow “large peble stones ... as bigge as nutmegs.”

In 1651 Morisot published an account of a voyage made by François Cauche, who professed to have passed fifteen days in Mauritius, or “l’isle de Saincte Apollonie,” as he called it, in 1638. According to De Flacourt the narrative is not very trustworthy, and indeed certain statements are obviously inaccurate. Cauche says he saw there birds bigger than swans, which he describes so as to leave no doubt of his meaning dodos; but perhaps the most important facts (if they be facts) that he relates are that they had a cry like a gosling (“il a un cry comme l’oison”), and that they laid a single white egg (“gros comme un pain d’un sol”) on a mass of grass in the forests. He calls them “oiseaux de Nazaret,” perhaps, as a marginal note informs us, from an island of that name which was then supposed to lie more to the northward, but is now known to have no existence.

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Fig. 1.—Skeleton of a Dodo, Didus ineptus, Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and cast of a Head in Oxford.

In the catalogue of Tradescant’s Collection of Rarities, preserved at South Lambeth, published in 1656, we have entered among the “Whole Birds,” a “Dodar from the island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.” This specimen may well have been the skin of the bird seen by Lestrange some eighteen years before, but anyhow we are able to trace the specimen through Willughby, Edward Llwyd and Thomas Hyde, till it passed in or before 1684 to the Ashmolean collection at Oxford. In 1755 it was ordered to be destroyed, but, in accordance with the original orders of Ashmole, its head and right foot were preserved, and still ornament the museum of that university. In the second edition of a Catalogue of many Natural Rarities, &c., “to be seen at the place formerly called the Music House, near the West End of St Paul’s Church,” collected by one Hubert alias Forbes, and published in 1665, mention is made of a “legge of a Dodo, a great heavy bird that cannot fly; it is a Bird of the Mauricius Island.” This is supposed to have subsequently passed into the possession of the Royal Society. At all events such a specimen is included in Grew’s list of their treasures which was published in 1681. This was afterwards transferred to the British Museum. It is a left foot, without the integuments, but it differs sufficiently in size from the Oxford specimen to forbid its having been part of the same individual. In 1666 Olearius brought out the Gottorffische Kunst Kammer, wherein he describes the head of a Walghvögel which some sixty years later was removed to the museum at Copenhagen, and is now preserved there, having been the means of first leading zoologists, under the guidance of Prof. J. Th. Reinhardt, to recognize the true affinities of the bird.

We have passed over all but the principal narratives of voyagers or other notices of the bird. A compendious bibliography, up to the year 1848, will be found in Strickland’s classical work,[5] and the list was continued by Von Frauenfeld[6] for twenty years later. The last evidence we have of the dodo’s existence is furnished by a journal kept by Benj. Harry, and now in the British Museum (MSS. Addit. 3668. II. D). This shows its survival till 1681, but the writer’s sole remark upon it is that its “fflesh is very hard.” The successive occupation of the island by different masters seems to have destroyed every tradition relating to the bird, and doubts began to arise whether such a creature had ever existed. Dr Henry Duncan, Scottish minister and journalist, in 1828, showed how ill-founded these doubts were, and some ten years later William John Broderip with much diligence collected all the available evidence into an admirable essay, which in its turn was succeeded by Strickland’s monograph just mentioned. But in the meanwhile little was done towards obtaining any material advance in our knowledge, Prof. Reinhardt’s determination of its affinity to the pigeons (Columbae) excepted; and it was hardly until George Clark’s discovery in 1865 of a large number of dodos’ remains in the mud of a pool (the Mare aux Songes) that zoologists generally were prepared to accept that affinity without question. The examination of bone after bone by Sir R. Owen (Trans. Zool. Soc. vi. p. 49) confirmed the judgment of the Danish naturalist.

In 1889 Th. Sauzier, acting for the government of Mauritius, sent a great number of bones from the same swamp to Sir Edward Newton.[7] From these the first correctly restored and properly mounted skeleton was prepared and sent to Paris, to be forwarded to the museum of Mauritius. Good specimens are in the British Museum, at Paris and at Cambridge, England.

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Fig. 2.—The Solitaire of Rodriguez (Pezophaps solitarius). From Leguat’s figure.

The huge blackish bill of the dodo terminated in a large, horny hook; the cheeks were partly bare, the stout, short legs yellow. The plumage was dark ash-coloured, with whitish breast and tail, yellowish white wings (incapable of flight). The short tail formed a curly tuft.

The dodo is said to have inhabited forests and to have laid one large white egg on a mass of grass. Besides man, hogs and other imported animals seem to have exterminated it. But the dodo is not the only member of its family that has vanished. The little island which has successively borne the name of Mascaregnas, England’s Forest, Bourbon and Réunion, and lies to the southward of Mauritius, had also an allied bird, now dead and gone. Of this not a relic has been handled by any naturalist. The latest description of it, by Du Bois in 1674, is very meagre, while Bontekoe (1646) gave a figure, apparently intended to represent it. It was originally called the “solitaire,” but this name was also applied to Pezophaps solitarius of Rodriguez by the Huguenot exile Leguat, who described and figured it about 1691.

The solitaire, Didus solitarius of Gmelin, referred by Strickland to a district genus Pezophaps, is supposed to have lingered in the island of Rodriguez until about 1761. Leguat[8] has given a delightful description of its quaint habits. The male stood about 2 ft. 9 in. high; its colour was brownish grey, that of its mate more inclined to brown, with a whitish breast. The wings were rudimentary, the tail very small, almost hidden, and the thigh feathers were thick and curled “like shells.” A round mass of bone, “as big as a musket ball,” was developed on the wings of the males, and they used it as a weapon of offence while they whirled themselves about twenty or thirty times in four or five minutes, making a noise with their pinions like a rattle. The mien was fierce and the walk stately, the birds living singly or in pairs. The nest was a heap of palm leaves a foot high, and contained a single large egg which was incubated by both parents. The food consisted of seeds and leaves, and the birds aided digestion by swallowing large stones; these were used by the Dutch sailors to sharpen their knives with. One of these stones, nearly an inch and a half in length, of extremely hard volcanic rock, is in the Cambridge museum. The fighting knobs mentioned above, are very interesting, large exostoses on one of the wrist-bones of either wing; they were undoubtedly covered with a thick, callous skin. Thousands of bones of this curious flightless pigeon were collected through Sir E. Newton’s[9] exertions, and by H. H. Sclater on behalf of the Royal Society of London. The results are several almost complete skeletons of both sexes, composed however out of the enormous mass of the dissociated bones.

(A. N.; H. F. G.)
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Fig. 3.—Skeleton of a male Solitaire, Pezophaps solitarius, Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.


  1. The etymology of these names has been much discussed. That of the latter, which has generally been adopted by German and French authorities, seems to defy investigation, but the former has been shown by Prof. Schlegel (Versl. en Mededeel. K. Akad. Wetensch. ii. pp. 255 et seq.) to be the homely name of the dabchick or little grebe (Podiceps minor), of which the Dutchmen were reminded by the round stern and tail diminished to a tuft that characterized the dodo. The same learned authority suggests that dodo is a corruption of Dodaars, but, as will presently be seen, we herein think him mistaken.
  2. What has become of the specimen (which may have been a relic of the bird brought home by Van Neck’s squadron) is not known. Broderip and Dr Gray have suggested its identity with that now in the British Museum, but on what grounds is not apparent.
  3. i.e. Rodriguez; an error.
  4. Hence we venture to dispute Prof. Schlegel’s supposed origin of “Dodo.” The Portuguese must have been the prior nomenclators, and if, as is most likely, some of their nation, or men acquainted with their language, were employed to pilot the Hollanders, we see at once how the first Dutch name Walghvögel would give way. The meaning of Doudo not being plain to the Dutch, they would, as is the habit of sailors, convert it into something they did understand. Then Dodaers would easily suggest itself.
  5. The Dodo and its Kindred, by H. E. Strickland and A. G. Melville (London, 1848, 4to).
  6. Neu aufgefundene Abbildung des Dronte, by Georg Ritter von Frauenfeld (Wien, 1868, fol.).
  7. E. Newton and H. Gadow, Trans. Zool. Soc. xiii. (1893) pp. 281-302, pls.
  8. Voyage et aventures de François Leguat, &c. (2 vols., London, 1708). An English translation, edited with many additional illustrations by Captain Oliver, has been published by the Hakluyt Society (2 vols., 1891).
  9. E. Newton and J. W. Clark, Phil. Trans. clix. (1869), pp. 327-362; clxviii. (1879), pp. 448-451.