DODOS AND SOLITAIRES
Perhaps the most famous extinct creature is the dodo; we often refer to defunct things as being "as dead as a dodo" while "dodo" is a byword for stupidity and obsolescence. It was one of four flightless pigeons: the Mauritius, Common or Brown Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), the much-debated Reunion White Dodo (Victoriornis imperialis), the Reunion Solitaire (was Ornithaptera solitarius, currently Theskiornis solitarius) and the Rodrigues Solitaire (Pezohaps solitarius). To people familiar with cooing fantail doves and feral city pigeons, it may seem odd to think of giant pigeons as dominant species, but this is what had happened. Mauritius is 500 miles (800 km) west of Madagascar. The island of Reunion is 100 miles (160 km) south west of Mauritius; Rodrigues is 300 miles (480 km) east of Mauritius. These islands make up the Mascarene islands. Mauritius is approximately 10.5 million years old. Rodrigues is about 8 million years old. Reunion about 3 million. Everything on Mauritius was also on Reunion, apart from the dodo; which was theerefore flightless before Reunion was formed.
The Mauritius dodo (Common Dodo) became extinct in 1680. When first discovered, it was variously described as a wild turkey, a cassowary, a hooded swan, a booby or a bastard ostrich. It was actually a giant, flightless dove. Modern research and reconstruction suggest it was not as gentle and dove-like as once supposed; adult dodos could be aggressive, territorial and fight back. Far from being stupid and useless, it was well-adapted to its environment - an environment without mammals - and its demise was due to the introduction of predators it had not evolved to cope with. Its common name comes from the Portuguese "doudo" (foolish) and the Dutch "dodaarsen" (fat heavy bottom). Teelingly, the Dutch also called it Walghvogel (disgusting bird) alluding to its inedible flesh.
The Mascarene Islands had been discovered and settled by the Portuguese in the early 16th century (Arab traders had already visited, but did not settle). With no mammals, the islands were dominated by birds that had evolved to fill the niches occupied elsewhere by mammals. Mauritius had been discovered around 1500 by Portuguese ships seeking a route for the East Indies. They named it Island of Swans, suggesting they had sighted the dodo and mistaken it for a swan (it was about the size of a swan) It had never been inhabited by man. The Dutch named it after their prince, Maurits of Nassau. Both countries were building colonial empires, but politics between Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands meant the Dutch East India Company was first to establish a foothold in Mauritius where, in addition to finding a useful stopover, they logged the abundant ebony and released pigs to ensure a living larder.
In 1598, a large Dutch expedition to the East Indies from the Netherlands, commanded by Admiral Jacob Corneliszoon van Neck, ran into bad weather off the Cape of Good Hope. Five of the ships sailed east of Madagascar and, running out of food and water, landed on an island called Islo do Cerne (Island of Swans) on old Portugeuse charts. Sloops from the Amsterdam and the Gelderland discovered a natural harbour, which they called Warwijk Harbour after theAmsterdam's vice-admiral, Wybrant van Warwijk. Islo de Cerno was a tropical paradise of palm trees and ebony forests inhabited by pigeons, parrots and a strange, large, flightless bird. None of the wildlife showed any fear of them; the birds were docile and easy prey (although the hooked beak of the large, flightless bird apparently gave cause for concern).
They called the large flightless bird a kermis-goose, since the harbour was found on the date of the annual kermis fair in Amsterdam. They described them as "as big as our swan, with large heads, and on the head a veil as though they had a small hood on their head; they have no wings but in their place there are three or four black quills, and where there ought to be a tail, there are four or five small curled plumes of a greyish colour". For all its size, the only edible part was the breast and there was not much of it since the birds were less plump than geese. The "stomach" was also good eating. However much the stewed the rest of the bird, it was tough, sinewy, oily and bad tasting, hence the name "walghvogel" (nauseating.bird). Like a turkey, the strange bird stored fat in its rump, earning it another Dutch name "doedaars" (fat-arse), later rendered "dodo". They turned their attention from the kermis-goose to the much tastier pigeons. Despite being poor eating, within 75 years of its discover, the dodo was extinct.
In 1598, Cornelius Van Neck made Mauritius a Dutch possession and it became an important stopover for Dutch ships on long journeys across the Indian ocean. Crews slaughtered the birds in their hundreds for sport; the meat also made a welcome change from ship's rations. A Dutch captain reported: "We lived on Tortoises, Dodos, (Pink and Blue) Pigeons, Grey Parrots and other game, which the crews caught by hand." Of these creatures, only the Mauritian Pink Pigeon remains, and its numbers are critically low.
The importance of Mauritius grew quickly and in 1599 an English report said: "This Island being situate to the East of Madagascar, and containing as much in compasse as all Holland, is a very high, goodly and pleasant land, full of green and fruitful vallies, and replenished with Palmito-trees, from wich droppeth holesome wine. Likewise here are very many trees of right Ebenwood as black as jet and smooth and hard as the very Ivory; and the quantity of this wood is so exceeding that many ships may be laden therewith. For to sail into this haven you must bring the two highest mountains one over the other, leaving five small islands on your right hand; and so you may enter in upon 30 fadomes of water. Lying in the bay they had 10, 12 and 14 fadoms. On their left hand was a little island which they named Hemskerk Island."
In spite of the birds being bad eating, men made sport of bludgeoning the docile dodo, and at first there were plenty of birds around. In1602 Captain Willem van West-Zanen recorded that his men killed "24 or 25 Dod-aarsen, so big and heavy that scarcely two were consumed at meal-time, and all that were remaining flung into salt."
In 1613 the journal of Johan Verken, a German sailor from Leipzig, was published in Frankfurt-am-Main. Verken recorded the dodo's featherless face, the yellow feathers at the tips of its stumpy wings, and "in place of a tail four or five curly greyish feathers" The dodo was also far less docile "They are known as Tottersten or Walck birds. They are found... in large numbers, though the Dutch have been catching and eating them daily, and not only these birds, but many other kinds.., which they beat with sticks and catch, taking care all the while that the Tottersten or Walck birds do not bite them on the arm or leg with their great, thick, curved beaks". Within 13 years of encountering predators, the supposedly dim-witted dodo had adapted its behaviour to defend itself with its powerful beak.
The first man to mention the dodo (by that name and spelling) in print was Thomas Herbert, an English diplomat to the Persian Court who went to Mauritius in 1629. His 1634 account of his travels included observations of the dodo: " First, here and here only is generated the Dodo, which for shape and rareness may antagonise the Phoenix of Arabia: her body is round and fat, few weigh lesse then fifty pound, are reputed of more for wonder then for food, greasie stomackes may seeke after them, but to the delicate, they are offensive and of no nourishment. Her visage darts forth melancholy, as sensible of Nature's injurie in framing so great a body to be guided with complementall wings, so small and impotent, that they serve only to prove her bird. The halfe of her head is naked, seeming covered with a fine vaile, her bill is crooked downwards, in the midst is the thrill (nostril), from which part to the end tis a light greene, mixt with a pale yellow tincture; her eyes are small and like to diamonds, round and rowling; her clothing downy feathers, her traine [tail] three small plumes, short and inproportionable, her legs suting to her body, her pounces sharpe, her appetite strong and greedy." The green spot may have been there to guide the young to peck at the parent's beak and make the parents disgorge food. He wrote that the dodo weighed fifty pounds, had a big appetite and that its 'fiery' stomach was capable of digesting stones. Because he wrote from memory and his later editions grew more elaborate, some of his descriptions are inaccurate. Thomas Crosfield wrote in his diary that, in 1634, a Mr Gosling bestowed a "Dodar (a blacke Indian bird)" on the Oxford anatomy school.
Though dodos defended themselves by pecking, they had not learned to flee from man. In 1631, a sailor wrote; "They displayed themselves to us with a stiff and stern face and wide open mouth" ... "very jaunty and audacious of gait, and would scarcely move a foot before us".
Peter Mundy kept a travel journal between 1628 and 1634. He described two dodos kept at Surat, where the Dutch East India Company had a station, and where Jahangir, the Great Mogul of Persia, kept a menagerie. Mundy also saw dodos in Mauritius. Mundy was the first man to note that they occurred nowhere else in the world and wrote that they could "neither flye nor swymm, being Cloven-footed'. Dodos were taken to menageries in Amsterdam, Prague, Batavia, Nagasaki and London. They were tough enough to survive the long journeys, but ugly enough that no-one bothered to create breeding colonies. When he visited Mauritius a second time, in the 1630s, he went looking for dodos and wrote "we Mett with none" indicating the bird's declining numbers.
Despite the continued slaughter, the dodo continued to breed in the more inaccessible parts of the island. In 1644, Mauritius became a Dutch colony. In 1662, Volkert Iversen, a German sailor, was one of several sailors shipwrecked on a beach at Mauritius following ferocious storms. He spent 6 months on the still uninhabited island. By then, there were no dodos left on Mauritius, but they were still to be found on offshore islets that were by sandbars to Mauritius at low tide. Iversen's islet was likely to have been either the ële aux Cerfs or the ële d'Ambre Iversen wrote: "We also found here many wild goats and all kinds of birds which are not at all timid, perhaps since they are not used to seeing people who hunt them. They stood quite still and watched us and allowed us to approach them. Among them were the birds known to the Indians as Dodderse, which are larger than geese, but unable to fly, having only little stumps of wings, but are fast runners. One party of us would chase them so that they ran towards the other party, who then grabbed them. When we had one tightly gripped around the leg it would cry out, then the others would come to its aid and be caught as well." The dodo had now learnt to run away from humans. In 1693 the French explorer and naturalist François Legaut reached Iversen's islet but did not find a single dodo. By 1680, the combined forces of humans and their introduced animals had rendered the dodo extinct.
Joris Laerle of the Gelderland depicted a thin, muscular bird, very different from the fat, ungainly birds drawn in captive settings. Others erroneously depicted it with webbed feet. The most familiar depictions of dodo are of birds so fat that they could scarcely walk because their bellies dragged on the ground. Although generally portrayed as fat, waddling creatures, the dodos' waistlines probably varied according to the season as they accumulated fat stores to see them through leaner times. It is also possible that that they shed their horny bill-sheaths annually during their general moult and wasting season or that juveniles had less robust beaks. The existence of white dodos on Reunion (under debate) is sometimes attributed to different colour phases or colour morphs of the common dodo; possibly immature dodos were white while adults varies from brown to grey.
Most reconstructions of dodos are based on overweight specimens, including over-fed menagerie specimens, adding to their unfortunate image as slow, stupid and waddling creatures (Lewis Carroll must also shoulder much of the blame for the bird's poor image). Dodos were kept in menageries in the 1600s; there was one in the menagerie of Rudolph II in Prague (the bird was stuffed after its death), another in Amsterdam, Holland in 1626, one in the menagerie of Henry Frederick of Orange at Buitenhof (near den Haag, possibly this was the Amsterdam dodo). Some sailor artists drew the dodo in its native habitat.
According to Ferdinand von Hochstetter, a dodo was displayed in London in 1638. Sir Hamon Lestrange wrote: "About 1638, as I walked London streets, I saw the picture of a strange fowle hung out upon a cloth.., and myselfe with one or two more then in company went in to see it. 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 a more erect shape, coloured before like the breast of a yong cock feson [pheasant], and on the back of a dun or deare colour. The keeper called it a Dodo, and in the ende of a chymney in the chamber there lay a heape of large pebble stones, whereof hee gave it many in our sight, some as big as nutmegs, and keeper told us she eats them (conducive to digestion)"
Lestrange's described the bird's erect posture and proud bearing. The pheasant colour would have been chestnut brown; dun indicates a mousy brown. Van Neck's description referred to "ashy grey with a white face". All in all, its colour was pretty nondescript. Its eyes were described as bright with white irises. The legs were yellow and the talons were black.
François Gauche's description, based on dodos in Mauritius in 1638, was a mixture of myth, reality and confusion with other unfamiliar birds such as the cassowary. He wrote that it had no tongue. He also wrote that its single white egg was "the size of a penny bun" (one needs to know the size of a 1638 French penny bun!) and, more helpfully, the same size as that of the pink pelican (8cm x 6 cm). He added that dodos made their nests at ground level on a pile of grass in the woods. According to Gauche, it had a call "like a gosling" (soft cooing), but also that it had as many tail feathers as it was old! Its feathers were generally downy, which fits in with a flightless bird.
Those pictures of fat, ungainly dodos were drawn of the captive birds. A long sea voyage, incarceration in a small menagerie pen and an unsuitable diet (especially if visitors threw bread or other food to the bored exhibits) would have created lazy, overweight specimens. The taxidermy of that time involved stuffing the specimens with straw, this did not always make for lifelike shapes or poses. The skins were often poorly preserved and decayed, shrank or stretched in places, further distorting proportions. The chemicals used to preserve the skins (and hair or feathers) often contributed to fading or discolouration, with some colours fading more than others; this may have resulted in the debated existence of the Reunion White Dodo.
Tragically, the bird picked up and preserved by Elias Ashmole in the seventeenth century was thrown away, except for its skull, beak and one foot, by a spring-cleaning curator at the Ashmolean in 1755. Preserved Dodo specimens became so rare that 1800s naturalists wondered if it had ever really existed; a scientist writing in 1801 even described the dodo as a "feathered tortoise"!
George Clark discovered dodo fossils five years after Darwin's "The Origin of Species" was published. Zoologist Richard Owen reconstructed Clark's fossil skeleton, basing his reconstruction on 17th century drawings and paintings of captive dodos, especially a 1626 painting by Roelandt Savery executed in about 1626. Owen's reconstruction showed a slow, fat bird that would be an obvious victim of Darwin's natural selection. Strickland and Melville, published their own study of the dodo in 1848, but did not challenge Owen's reconstruction. Modern studies indicate that Clark's version would have been crippled by its own weight. Dutch accounts give its weight at 25 kilos and modern calculations suggest 17 kilos.
The question of why the dodo became extinct is no longer a simple one of it being stupid or over-hunted. It held little appeal as food. Even hunting for sport was limited and the population, though not vast, had to be large enough for it to be genetically healthy. What is beyond doubt is that the dodo was specialised for living at ground level on an island with no predators, no competing species and little disturbance.
In 1865, at a remote place on Mauritius called Mare aux Songes (near Mahébourg in the southeast of the island), George Clark, an amateur naturalist, retrived an entire fossil dodo. Many more were later discovered at the same site. The skeletons revealed that the bird was 75 cm tall, with undeveloped chicken-like wings, a small breast and strong, thick legs. Its head was very large in proportion to its body (larger than that of any existing birds) and equipped with a long, hooked bill. The keratin tip of the beak was shed and re-grown annually, and was used for eating, fighting and possibly in mating displays. Such a beak would have enabled the bird to exploit a wide variety of low-growing or fallen fruits. The forest floor beneath the tall ebony trees would have been relatively clear and the birds would have spent much of their time foraging. To provide calcium for their eggshells they would have eaten the plentiful snails, crabs and coral. They also swallowed stones to grind tough food in their gizzard and their large size indicates a long gut for digesting vegetation. Flying requires a great deal of energy; without energy-dense foods or predators, there was no need for the dodo to expend energy on flight. It probably had a slow metabolism and would also have been long lived, perhaps up to 40 years.
Like pigeons, dodos were probably very competitive during mating season. Being large, and needing plenty of food, they were probably not very sociable and may have been territorial to protect their favourite feeding areas. They probably established nesting territories, breeding in pairs rather than harems. We know that they laid a single egg in a ground-level nest. Being large birds, the chick would have developed slowly, perhaps taking 9 months to reach maturity. This means a dodo probably only bred every 2 years and that pairs remained together to raise their single offspring. Once independent of its parents, the young may have formed groups (the French naturalist Legaut wrote of crèches of young in the upland forests) until mature enough to find and defend their own territories. With no predators to keep the population down and with finite food and territory, it benefited the dodo to breed slowly.
The only land mammals on Mauritius seem to have been bats. There were reptiles such as geckos, lizards, snakes and giant tortoises (the latter also extinct). Mammals introduced deliberately or accidentally by man included cats, dogs, mongooses, pigs, goats, rats, rabbits and monkeys. Some of these were deliberately released to provide a living larder for sailors and settlers and for sport. The rich undergrowth was perfectly suited to pigs. They competed for ground-level fruit, they rooted, they no doubt trampled over nests, breaking eggs and killing chicks or simply driving the parents to abandon their nest. The only dodos not immediately in danger would have been the adults, but every spoiled breeding season would have meant an ageing population less likely to breed in the future.
Excavations at the site of Fort Hendrik, the permanent base established by the Dutch in 1638, found no trace of dodo leftovers in the middens (kitchen waste) at the site. Iversen's islet, where the last dodos were seen, was north of the main island and as far as possible from Fort Hendrik. This suggests that Fort Hendrik was a centre of ebony logging, with loggers working outwards from that point and driving the dodo progressively further away as its habitat was destroyed. However logging alone was not extensive enough to account for its extinction since parts of the forest were impenetrable to loggers. Other factors, such as introduced animals and a new-learnt fear of humans, probably caused the dodos to withdraw to the islet.
That last outpost of dodos on their isolated islet would have been under great stress. The shortage of mates would have led to inbreeding, and the population was probably already moderately inbred. The destruction of nests and eggs on the mainland would have meant few youngsters in the population. The remaining birds were possibly too old to breed successfully. They were often cut off from the mainland and probably short of food and nesting materials. Any chicks they did manage to raise were probably not enough to replace the birds that died of old age or being eaten by desperate, shipwrecked sailors. In 1693, no dodos were found on the islet.
The following is from "New Zealand" by Ferdinand von Hochstetter (1867); excerpts from Chapter IX "Kiwi and Moa, the wingless Birds of New Zealand" included comparisons with the dodo and its kin. "East of Madagascar, upon the Mascarene Islands (Bourbon, Mauritius, Rodriguez), -- from the bones collected by Mr. Bartlett upon Rodriguez in 1855, there are three species known, the Dronte or Dodo (Didus ineptus), the Solitaire (Pezophaps) and a new, much larger bird. All are extinct; but concerning the former two, it has been proved, that they lived in great numbers on those islands till within the 16th and 17th centuries. Even as late as 1638 a live Dodo was exhibited in England, the skin of which was afterwards transferred to the famous Museum of John Tradescant. At a revision of this Museum in 1775 by the trustees, the damaged specimens were condemned among the rubbish, and unfortunately also the Dronte; the head and feet were all that was saved of it, and these parts, the only remnants of the extraordinary animal, are now exhibited as a great curiosity in the Asmolean Museum in Oxford [Footnote: Besides this, there is a breast-bone in Paris, a skull in Prague, a beak in Kopenhagen and a foot in London.]"
One of the biggest tragedies was that the dodo, superbly specialised for its island habitat, was tough enough to survive long sea voyages to Europe. Had the dodo been more attractive or had a flavour suited to refined palates, it would have been bred at menageries or in parks in the same way as ornamental waterfowl, ornamental peacocks and fantail doves.
REUNION WHITE DODO
The debated fourth member of the dodo family was the white dodo of Reunion. Two eye-witness accounts and several paintings demonstrate how it differed from the Mauritius Dodo. In his account of a voyage by Captain Samuel Castleton on the Pearl in 1613, J. Tatton described the Reunion white dodo: "There is a store of Land-fowl, both small and great, plentie of Doves, great Parrots and such like; and a great fowl of the bigness of a turkey, very fat, and so short-winged that they cannot flie, being white, and in a manner tame; and so are all other fowles, as having not been troubled or feared with shot." Their lack of fear made them defenceless against hunters.
In 1646, Dutch navigator Willen Bontekoe van Hoorn, published details of his travels between 1618 - 1625 and wrote: "There were also some Dod-eersen which had small wings, but could not fly; they were so fat that they could scarcely walk, for when they trod their belly dragged along the ground." He did not mention their colour and it has been suggested that he was actually on Mauritius when he observed the birds. Although described as fat and waddling, the dodo's girth probably varied with the season, with them putting on fat reserves in bountiful seasons to see them through leaner seasons.
The reunion white dodo may have survived as late as 1770 due to the island's larger size and the slower growth of settlements on Reunion. De la Bourdannaye, the Governor of Mauritius and Reunion between 1735-46, sent either a solitaire or a white dodo to the Directors of the Company as a curiosity. It evidently died or was eaten en route as it never reached the Company.
Most depictions of white dodos were based on a 1611 (or 1626) oil painting of a whitish specimen from Rudolf II's collection by Roelandt Savery. Savery was contracted to Rudolf II whose Prague collection included a "walghvogel" specimen described as being a "dirty off-white colouring" in an inventory of 1607-1611. This may have been based on a faded taxidermised specimen as many old taxidermy specimens fade to a cream colour. If Savery based his painting on that specimen, the "white dodo" could not have been from Reunion as the island was not visited by Europeans until 1635. Nevertheless, Savery's depiction was copied by Pieter Holsteyn the Elder and Pieter Withoos, among others. Holsteyn's painting, probably dating to 1638, depicts a whitish, caricature-like dodo with yellow wings and a few feathers in its tail. At the base of its bill it has a black band (a trait found on the Rodrigues solitaire!) suggesting that it was not painted from life. Savery depicts the white dodo in a mythological setting.
A painting of a white dodo by Pieter Withoos in 1680 depicts a white dodo in a park among accurately painted waterfowl, suggesting that his depiction of the dodo was also accurate. He portrayed it as having buttercup-yellow wings, a high-arched tail and a faint bluish tint towards the end of its otherwise white plumage. The eyelid was bright red, the legs and feet were ochre-yellow with black nails and the beak was far less hooked and pointed than that of the Mauritius dodo. In fact the end of the beak appears to have been trimmed off, perhaps for the safety of its keepers.
A drawing entitled "Dronte" (the Dutch and German name for the bird) is somewhat similar to the watercolour of "White Dodo of Réunion" by Pieter Holsteyn and also resembles Roelandt Savery's 1626 depiction of a dodo standing. The unknown artist's drawing shows a tailless dodo, which is actually anatomically correct as many artists added fanciful plumes to their depictions.
Some scientists believe the Reunion white dodo was actually an immature common dodo or a colour morph or colour phase of the common (brown) dodo. It was evidently not an albino since it had yellow wings and black claws, but it may have been a leucistic form. Mauritius dodos were variously depicted as brown or grey. Some believe young dodos may have been taken to Reunion from Mauritius by sailors. No dodo bones have been found on the island. Paintings of white dodos are generally used to illustrate articles on the Reunion solitaire, although this may be just as great an error since that bird is currently believed to be a type of ibis!
Unlike the ungainly, inedible dodo, the graceful, long-necked solitaires were described as "delightfully beautiful and delightfully edible", with one early observer writing "The Females are wonderfully beautiful, some fair, some brown; I call them fair, because they are of the colour of fair Hair. They have a sort of Peak, like a Widow's upon their Beak, which is of a dun colour. No one feather is straggling from the other . . . The Feathers on their Thighs are round like shells at one end, and being there very thick, have an agreeable effect. They have two Risings on the Craws, and the Feathers are whiter there than the rest, which lively represents the fine bosom of a Beautiful Woman. They walk with so much stateliness and good Grace, that one cannot help admiring and loving them."
François Leguat, a Huguenot refugee from France exiled to previously uninhabited Rodrigues for two years, described the Rodrigues solitaire in his memoirs, which were published in 1708. Until 1875, when solitaire skeletons were found, his descriptions were considered fanciful. Archaeology finally upheld much of what he had written and his descriptions are now taken seriously. Leguat described the solitaires' mating dances and displays; the birds whirred their short wings and clapped them "like a rattle" against their sides. They guarded their nests and single chicks and were territorial driving away other solitaires from their territory. They also mated for life: "these two Companions never disunite".
Leguat described the birds' annual "betrothal" ceremonies: "Some days after the young one leaves the nest a Company of 30 or 40 brings another young one to it; and the new-fledged Bird with its Father and Mother joyning with the Band, march to some bye Place. We frequently followed them, and found that afterwards the old ones went each their way alone, or in Couples, and left the two young ones together, which we call a Marriage."
Thirty years after Leguat, another observer wrote: "When caught they make no sound, but shed tears", and said that they pined away quickly, refusing to eat in captivity. As well as being monogamous, territorial and slow breeding (with only a single chick), the solitaires could also be aggressive, pecking fiercely and striking with their small wings. Their apparently useless wings were tipped with knobs "the size of musket balls" and these were used as weapons as well as being the source of the rattling sound when they danced.
In spite of being described as useful, intelligent and beautiful, the opposite of the supposedly useless, stupid and ugly Mauritius dodo, the solitaire shared the dodo's fate. There were reports of solitaires on Rodrigues as late as 1761. In 1831, a long-time inhabitant of the island said he had never seen or heard of the solitaire, so it was certainly extinct by 1800. Several solitaire skeletons were unearthed on Rodrigues in 1875; these included the "widow's peak" and the "musket-ball wingclappers" described by Leguat.
An insight into the "musket balls" has been gained from research into the extinct flightless bird from Jamaica, Xenicibis xympithecus. Scientists found some specimens where the clubs appear to have been broken by another bird's clubbed wing indicating these birds used their bony bludgeons to fight territorial rivals and for defence against predators. Xenicibis was a chicken-sized member of the ibis family and fossils show that the metacarpus (one of the hand bones) was elongated and bulky and could be used as a jointed club or flail. Modern ibises grab each other by the beak and flail with their wings. The extinct Rodrigues Solitaire, which may have been either a relative of the Mauritius dodo or, like Xenicibis xympithecus, a relative of the ibis.
REUNION SOLITAIRE or REUNION IBIS
From all accounts, the Reunion (or Bourbon) solitaire (or Reunion Ibis) was slightly larger and more sturdily built bird than the Rodrigues solitaire. It had longer legs and these were muscled, suggesting it could run at greater speeds than its relative. Unlike the almost tailless Rodrigues solitaire, the Reunion solitaire had a large tuft-like feathered tail. It was considered good eating and was extensively hunted for food, becoming extinct around 1700 (it was last reported in 1705) while the reunion white dodo apparently survived until 1770.
Based on bones found on the island, some authorities believe the Reunion Solitaire to be a relative of the ibis, rather than a pigeon/dodo although most sites describing the Reunion solitaire show illustrations of the Reunion white dodo. Authorities now classify the Reunion solitaire as an ibis, Theskiornis solitarius, and ibis remains have been found on the island which support this classification. The ibis remains indicate the bird had not lost the ability to fly, although lack of predators allowed it to adopt a terrestrial lifestyle. Others have suggested that the Reunion solitaire and the Reunion dodo referred to the same bird in its lean and fat forms.
It appears to have lived solitarily in deep forests near freshwater, feeding on invertebrates that caught or dug out of the mud with its long beak. When threatened, it reportedly tried to get away on foot, but used its wings for assistance and would sometimes glide short distances, especially downhill. Travellers' reports and bone measurements indicate that it was well on its way to flightlessness, but was able to fly some distance under its own power after a running take-off.
Was this the bird described by Mr Tatton, Chief Officer of Captain Samuel Castleton on the Pearl in 1613? "a great fowle of the bignesse of a Turkie, very fat, and so short winged, that they cannot fly, being white, and in a manner tame: and so be all other fowles, as having not been troubled nor feared with shot. Our men did beat them down with sticks and stones. Ten men may take fowle enough to serve fortie men a day." In 1674, the French traveller Du Bois depicted a white bird on Reunion and wrote "These birds are so-called solitaires because they are always found alone. They are as big as a goose and their plumage is white, with black tips to the wings and the tail. The tail has some feathers resembling an ostrich. They have a long neck and a beak shaped like the wood-cocks but larger. Their legs and feet are like those of the turkey. This bird is caught by running after it, as it flies very little. It is the best game of the island." This description suggests a type of ibis and, interesting, does not refer to it as flightless, merely states that it rarely flew.
Carre, secretary of the French East Indies Company, wrote in 1669 that two Reunion solitaires were sent to the Royal menagerie, but that they did not arrive: "We wanted to preserve two of these birds to send them to France to His Majesty, but as soon as they came on board, they died of melancholy refusing to eat or drink." Between 1735 and 1746, Mahe de La Bourdonnais, governor of Mauritius and Reunion sent either a Reunion solitaire or a Reunion white dodo as a present to the director of the French East Indies Company, but it evidently expired en route as there are no records of it arriving in France.
DODO AND SOLITAIRE (HARMSWORTH NATURAL HISTORY)
The entry for the Dodo and Solitaire in Harmsworth Natural History (1910) as a footnote to the section on the pigeon family: The dodo and its near ally the solitaire (family Diddae) are totally extinct members of the order, characterised by their very large size and massive build, accompanied by a complete incapacity for flight. The members of the group were entirely confined to the islands of Mauritius, Reunion, and Rodriguez. A native of Mauritius, and the sole representative of its genus, the dodo (Didus ineptus) was somewhat larger than a swan, with rudimentary wings, and a tail composed of short, curly feathers. The beak was very large and hooked, the body remarkably heavy, and the legs and feet short and stout.
Large, clumsy, and defenceless, the dodo was a bird marked out for early destruction; and soon after its discovery it fell a prey to sailors, and the animals introduced by them into its island home. A few scattered relics of stuffed specimens, together with bones dug up from the peat of Mauritius, are all that are left of this bird; but fortunately a good idea of its appearance is given in several contemporary pictures. It was discovered by Admiral Van Neck in 1598, was still abundant in 1601, and was known to be living eighty years later, although by 1691 it appears to have been exterminated. An allied bird inhabited Reunion, but its precise affinities are unknown.
The gigantic flightless pigeon of Rodriguez known as the solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria) survived till a later date than the dodo, having probably lingered on in the more remote parts of the island till 1761. It was much longer in the leg than the dodo, and had a proportionately. longer neck, and the males, which were far superior in size to the females, were furnished with a peculiar ball-like excrescence on each wing. The French navigator Leguat, who visited Rodriguez in 1691, and found the solitaire abundant, has given a good account of its habits, and a truthful, if somewhat pre-Raphaelite, portrait; while of late years numerous fossil bones of the solitaire have been brought to Europe, so that we have now a fair idea of its organisation and affinities.
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