Thursday, October 14, 2010

Going the Way of the Dodo

Portrayed most notably in the drawings of John Tenniel and, later, Walt Disney studios for Alice in Wonderland, along with the occasional ornithological study, the Raphus cucullatus has become a punchline: a stupid, insatiable, odd-looking, fat, turkey-like bird with a giant, hooked beak and flightless, puny wings. All pomp and feathers, the Dodo has become a verbal shorthand for the outmoded, ineffective, and inane. The flightless, greedy bird with an alleged (but now commonly refuted) plumed bustle is a natural reference for op-ed columns and political commentary: here is an idea, party, individual on the brink of extinction, brought to this inevitable demise through lack of intelligence and the inability to adapt.

As in so many cases of unjust labeling and selective memory, the Dodo is a victim of poor marketing. Five hundred years ago when the Dodo was first discovered on the island of Mauritius by Portuguese mariners, the birds had no natural predators, did not fear man, and evidently were tasty. With those scrawny wings, just think of all that tender breast meat. All you had to do was wait until a juicy Dodo walked up to you and conk it in the head with a rock or whatever was in easy reach, and behold, you had the predecessor of the modern Thanksgiving meal's centerpiece, only way bigger than even the most robust of the genetically enhanced turkeys of today. Just think how many tiny sailors of yore could be sated with just one Dodo, which was estimated to weigh up to fifty pounds.

Reportedly, the buggers were greedy gobblers. Can't you just imagine them being seduced with chunks of pão, massa sovada, or whatever bread those sailors were eating back in the early sixteenth century? For reference, I am thinking of ducks and pigeons, the latter a close relative of the Dodo, when someone strolls into a park with a bread bag. I have seen sparrows go at it in fast food parking lots over a French fry. Birds eat a lot, and they can be uncouth about it, but I imagine that the Dodo was no greedier than a goose or a goat or dog for that matter. Or a hungry sailor with a rock, a knife, and a flint. In retrospect, what can those who ate a population into extinction say about gluttony?

Now, the bird-gorging was not the doing of the settlers of Mauritius alone. They also introduced non-native predators to the island where the Dodo had not naturally any predators, and these new critters, including pigs, indulged on the birds' eggs, so the live Dodos were rendered barren.

It was the fifteen hundreds, and people did not know any better, sure. Of course, this lesson may not have been heeded, exactly. It brings to mind the Africanized Honey Bee(1)
, the Northern Snakehead(2), and the European Starling(3), one of the species introduced to the U.S. with the hopes of importing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. But I digress on the follies of man.

Whether or not they were greedy is debatable, but were they stupid? Birds who had never seen a human and had no natural predators, how were they to know that the food chain was such a bitch? Or that they themselves were so succulent? Was it their intelligence that was lacking? Reportedly, the Dodos fished and had hunting prowess. They ingested rocks to aid digestion, which may seem odd but is not atypical for a bird. They were able to survive up until human invasion. In short, they were a trusting race picked off by alien beings landing with a mission To Serve Dodo. They were outgoing and trusting, which in truth are faults in many stations of life, particularly politics.

What the late Dodo needs is image management. Here is what we have to work with: trusting, adventurous individuals interested in sport (hunting, fishing, the "every man" pastimes) and feeding their middle class families, which were ripped from them as an intruding peoples performed a systematic genocide. A race so noble that Charles Dodgson, pseudonym Lewis Carroll, portrayed himself as the creature.
Taking that tact, "Going the way of the Dodo" has quite a different meaning entirely, doesn't it? An innocent population picked off by those larger and stronger than they. And, in many cases, that description fits perfectly.

  1. "United States Department of Agriculture Species Profile: Africanized Honeybee". Retrieved 10/14/2010.
  2.  "United States Department of Agriculture Species Profile: Northern Snakehead." Retrieved 10/14/2010.
  3. Mirsky, Steve. "Shakespeare to Blame for Introduction of European Starlings to U.S.: Brought here on a lark, starlings are now at every turn". Scientific American. 2008-05-23. Retrieved 10/14/2010.

About Dodos:
"Species factsheet: Raphus cucullatus
(2010)". BirdLife International. Retrieved 10/14/2010.   
"Dodo - Raphus cucullatus". The Extinction Website. Retrieved 10/14/2010.
Jamieson, Alastair. "Uncovered: 350-year-old picture of dodo before it was extinct". Telegraph. 2009-06-22. Retrieved 10/14/2010.
"Dodo skeleton find in Mauritius". BBC News. London. 2006-06-24. Retrieved 10/14/2010.
"Scientists find 'mass dodo grave'". BBC News. London. 2005-12-24 Retrieved 10/14/2010.
"Scientists Pinpoint Dodo's Demise". BBC News. London. 2003-11-20.  Retrieved 10/14/2010.