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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Dodo in the Aviary

With its hefty size, imposing red eyes, and delicate, lacy crest, the Victoria crowned pigeon isn't a bird that you'd ever mistake for the plump street pigeons scavenging hot dog buns on a New York City street corner.  Still, it's not the largest pigeon species of modern times.  That honor belonged to Raphus cucullatus, a flightless, turkey-sized bird from the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa.  I use the past tense because Raphus cucullatus is now, regrettably, extinct.  In fact, apart from the dinosaurs, it's probably the most famous example of an extinct animal that there is.

You know it better as the dodo.

It was done in by the usual suspects of island birds - natural rarity, introduced competitors and predators, and the bad luck of having evolved in the absence of ecocidal bipedal primates who were more than happy to club the predator-naive birds for a meal.  It's difficult to say for certain when the dodo breathed its last, but it was believed to have been extinct by the 1700- think of it, by the time George Washington was born, "Dead as a Dodo" would have already been a valid saying.  A few specimens were sent to Europe and Asia, where they were displayed as rarities and novelties, but the dodo didn't survive to see the establishment of the modern zoo.  In this, it is unlike the quagga and the thylacine, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet.  No actual zoo - established by a zoological society, staffed by professional keepers - ever kept a dodo.

Which got me thinking - what would it have been like?  Suppose a few dodos had clung to survival?  Perhaps a few had survived on a predator-free islet, or some enterprising collector had scooped a few up before the wild population vanished, as had happened with Pere David's deer?  Suppose the dodo was still with us - IUCN Critically Endangered, possibly even Extinct in the Wild, but not an uncommon feature of zoos, sort of like the Guam rail or Micronesian kingfisher?

I'm not talking about the conservation "what ifs..."  I'm just wondering what it would have been like to be a dodo keeper.

How would we have exhibited them?  Dodos are flightless, so they could have been kept outside in yard exhibits, though presumably some zoos would keep them in covered aviaries, perhaps more for protection from native predators than for fear that they birds would someone sprout wings.  What would their enclosures require - would they wade in pools?  Bathe in the dust?  How cold tolerant would they be?  Would be need to exhibit them indoors, or would they be comfortable outside for most of the year, maybe with a shed with a heat lamp being sufficient shelter for the winter?

Would they do well in mixed-species exhibits?  With what?  Maybe we would be housing them with Aldabra tortoises, another Indian Ocean islander that suffered tremendously at the hand of man.  Perhaps in an aviary with their closest living relatives, the Nicobar pigeon and the crowned pigeons.  How would dodos get along with other species?  Would they reveal a previously-unsuspected bully-streak?  Or would they be meek and docile?

What would we feed them?  Would they have a favorite fruit?  Would we perhaps do feeding demos, watching them gulp wedges of fruit, picking at their grain later, resignedly, only when they'd eaten all of the good stuff first?  What veterinary issues would we associate with them?

What would their personality be like?  Would new keepers enter their pens warily, keeping a rake handy at all times to fend off that massive beak?  Would they be very shy and (pun intended) flighty, running around in a panic as soon as a keeper approached?  Or, as I suspect, would their insular fearlessness stay with them in a zoo setting?  I like to think that would be the case - that we'd be walking among them as the placidly waddle about, sometimes playfully nibbling our boots and being good-naturedly pushed away.

Perhaps most importantly - would they breed well in zoos?  If so, we could imagine the possibility of a Mauritius once again walked by the dodo.  An extensive predator-clearing campaign could we waged, driving mongooses, monkeys, and the like back (similar efforts are already underway to protect the still-surviving birdlife of the island).

The thing is, we'll never know.  We have no photographs of the dodo, no video clips, no sound recordings.  We have a few paintings and some skeletal remains and some firsthand accounts.  That's all we know about the dodo.  We'll never know what breeding displays they engage in.  No zoo vet will ever formulate a diet based on their nutritional needs.  No schoolchildren will ever laugh uproariously as a dodo poops in front of them.  No zookeeper will every rush to her incubator, watching a dodo chick start to crack its shell with tears of excitement in her eyes.

The thought of any of this only just occurred to me, maybe in the last day or so.  I don't know why it's sticking with me so much.  If the dodo had survived, for most people, it would be just another bird, one among 10,000 species that we have on earth.  No more striking or unusual, perhaps, than that Victoria crowned pigeon.  Perhaps it's knowing that we'll never have a dodo that makes the thought of it so extraordinary.

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