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The Way of the Dodo

Artists for Conservation

My 2009 AFC flag expedition to Mauritius "Not the way of the Dodo" drew the attention to tragedy of extinction of which the Dodo is its unfortunate icon. Much has been written about this enigmatic bird so it is hard to mention something about it that nobody else already did. But I will try to do that in this blog, looking at the Dodo from an artist's point of view. For those who don't know this: Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean and the only place on earth where the Dodo lived.

The first people to see it were probably Arabian and Portuguese sailors but the first written account about this bird is from the Dutch. In September 1598 a Dutch fleet of five ships landed on Mauritius, looking for refreshment on their way to East Asia. In the journal of one of the ships, the Gelderland, the first description of the Dodo was written down: "There is also a kind of bird, as big as a goose, with the body of an ostrich, the feet of an eagle, with a huge beak. A bird with little plumage, wings the size of a teal, very fat, when plucked apparently very good, if tough skinned: As I said, the size of a goose, and sometimes larger than a swan". Unfortunately the seafarers mostly stressed the importance of how a bird tasted rather than how it looked.

Art-wise, painting the Dodo is a challenge because it was not a pretty bird, it had dull colours and its home was all green lush forest.

Back home, after my expedition to Mauritius, I set out to portray the Dodo and made several attempts to make eye-pleasing paintings: I made two oils and one mixed media painting, each with a different view.

The one with the rim of flowers is inspired on the only painting in the world that portrays a Dodo with its correct colours and shape (by Mughal artist Ustad Mansur, approx. 1625). Mansur placed several birds that lived in the menagerie of his Indian Sultan in one painting, among them a Dodo, and decorated the edge of the artwork with a floral rim. My rim of flowers consists of endemic and native Mauritius plants; it is - to me - reminiscent of a wreath.

The painting with the books is inspired on many hours of study in the Artis Library of the University of Amsterdam. The Dodo is an image of imagination that rises from the studies of long passed away researchers who often left a different view of this remarkable bird. The third painting shows the Dodo in its natural surroundings, the ebony forest of Mauritius.

For me as an artist it was not difficult to pick out the few credible accounts that describe the visual appearance of the Dodo correctly. The most important one is indeed the miniature painting of Ustad Mansur. He portrayed the bird from life, and being a celebrated artist of his time, employed by the Sultan, I have no doubt that his rendering of the Dodo was correct. Its head and neck were blackish-brown, his breast was lighter and his back was brown. Several accounts speak of a "white iris"; this was confirmed by Ustad Mansur who gave his Dodo a white iris too.

In 1988 research was done by the Institute of Toxonomic Zoology of the University of Amsterdam on the few remaining feathers of the once discarded and burnt Oxford specimen (head and foot were saved by an apt assistant). This report speaks of "remains of black-brown feathers on both the head and the removed skin." This supports Mansur's choice for the dark colour of the head and neck. And this is the shade I gave ‘my' Dodo's: rather dark than light grey.

Many of you may have seen hand made Dodo specimens in natural history museums; most of those have been given the colour of light grey. The grey is based upon accounts of early Dutch seafarers who described the Dodo as "grau". The direct translation of "grau" is indeed "grey" but it indirectly means something like "colourless". What the early travelers probably meant was that the Dodo didn't have any distinguishable colours, like for instance blue or red. Brown and grey would not have been specifically stated as colours by the seafarers and that's why they gave it the approximate description of "grau".

There is an example of a bird that in Dutch language is called "Grauwe gans" (Anser anser). This goose does have grey shades but is actually more brown than grey. The grey Dodo's that are exhibited in natural history museums are therefore probably not what this bird really looked like.

What remains fascinating is how the Dodo made its way to the island of just 60 by 40 kilometers - which is the approximate size of Mauritius - in the middle of a vast mass of ocean. The explanation is that its pigeon-ancestor must have lived on a range of volcanic islands that have subsided under water millions of years ago. The islands were like stepping-stones for the radiation of several bird species from South-east Asia to the Mascarene islands. Pigeons are good flyers and disperse easy, so this could be the explanation how the ancestor of the Dodo came to Mauritius. It lost its ability to fly during the course of evolution in the absence of predators on the isolated island and grew into a form of gigantism.

The opinion of when exactly the Dodo became extinct differs. One theory claims that the journal of shipwrecked survivors of the "Arnhem" in 1662 gives the last unequivocal account of this bird, making the Dodo extinct in the 1660's.

Another theory presents a statistical method to establish the actual extinction thirty years later assuming that the Dodo persisted unseen beyond the last confirmed sighting, placing the extinction date in the 1690's. This theory is supported by the hunting records of the logbooks of Isaac Lamotius, Dutch governor of Mauritius between 1677 and 1692, who lists an impressive number of Dodo's being caught by his men: between 1685 and 1688 they reportedly captured no less than twenty Dodo's. The first theory claims however that these birds were not Dodo's at all but Rails who looked like them.

Whatever the date of extinction may be, it is certain that in the French period (starting in 1715) there was no mention of Dodo's anymore.

This was the way of the Dodo, it lived on Mauritius for eight million years and died out within 90 years, after the arrival of man.

 

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