|The dodo (right) sketched by Sir Thomas Herbert in 1634|
In the early seventeenth century, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean had very few human inhabitants. However, it had a rich birdlife and several species were unique to the island - including a very large, flightless member of the pigeon family which occupied some of the coastal forest areas. Somehow it became known as the "dodo". The origins of that name are uncertain.
In an age when European ships were fanning out around the world - mostly in search of new sources of wealth - Mauritius became a a staging post - a remote island where sailors could rest for a while and replenish their supplies of fresh water. Legend has it that it was these sailors of the seventeenth century who were responsible for the extinction of the dodo though that assumption is unproven. Some dodos were certainly eaten and some were captured. There is evidence that one live bird was even brought back to London for the interest of the curious. Here's Sir Hamon L'Estrange remembering a viewing in 1638 "It was kept in a chamber, and was a great fowle somewhat bigger than the largest Turkey cock, and so legged and footed, but stouter and thicker and of more erect shape, coloured before like the breast of a young cock fesan, and on the back of a dunn or dearc colour. The keeper called it a Dodo..."
The first recorded European sighting of a dodo happened in 1598 following a visit to Mauritius by Dutch seamen. The last known sighting was just sixty four years later. So in the length of a human life, a unique and precious creature had vanished forever.
It wasn't the most beautiful of birds - quite ugly and cumbersome in fact - as it waddled around the island's green coastal forests for many hundreds of years - safe from predators. When reproducing, it is thought that it laid single egg in ground nests. An adult dodo stood a metre tall and could weigh up to fifty pounds. It fed on fallen fruit and nuts.
In a children's book of verse from 1896, Hilaire Belloc wrote:-
The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground –
The Dodo is not there!
The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now for ever dumb –
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.
It was around that time here in Britain that the phrase "as dead as a dodo" first appeared in a political context following the bird's earlier popularisation by Lewis Caroll in "Alice in Wonderland" (1865). However, to me that phrase "as dead as a dodo" has now morphed into an accusation regarding mankind's thoughtless elimination of a long list of wonderful creatures. It was here but now it is gone and as the world's population increases yet more of our immediate neighbours from the animal world will surely and tragically follow the dodo into the history of what's been lost.