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!
Early explorers to Rodrigues described a "Dodo" living on the tiny forested island. The males stood almost a metre tall and weighed nearly 30kg, while the females were half that size. Males were grey-brown, and females sandy, both having strong legs and long, proud necks. Unlike the ungainly, inedible dodo, the graceful, long-necked solitaires were described as "delightfully beautiful and delightfully edible."
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. Leguat, along with six other Huguenot men, had hoped to establish a colony on the island of Reunion, but were marooned on Rodrigues between 1691 and 1693, during which time they tried to establish a settlement on the island. Leguat encountered the solitaire and wrote about it in his diary.
He described how the birds used their short wings to make a loud rattling sound that could be heard some distance away and the bone on their wing which grew larger at the end, forming a musket-ball-sized mass under the feathers. This was used as a club-like weapon, and along with their beak, was their chief defence. It's likely that the rattling sounds were used both to attract the attention of a mate and as a warning to rivals. In woodland they were hard to catch, but in the open they were slower moving and could be overtaken by a running man.
Archaeology finally upheld much of what Leguat 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 mated for life. They guarded their nests and single chicks and were territorial driving away other solitaires from their territory. Bothe parents took turns incubating the egg which hatched at seven weeks. After hatching, the chick was dependent on its parents for several months, which meant it was a slow breeder (perhaps breeding at 2 year intervals). Its numbers were controlled by food availability rather than predation.
Leguat described the birds' annual "betrothal" ceremonies. When the youngster fledged and left the nest a flock of 30 or 40 apparently brought another young one to it. The monogamous couples then left the two young ones together, which Leguat called a “Marriage." He praised the birds for “marrying” at a young age. While the idea of presenting a mate to the youngster seems far-fetched, it’s possible that Solitaires temporarily congregated in flocks some time after the young had fledged, allowing the youngsters to court.
Leguat wrote: “Of all the Birds in the Island, the most Remarkable is that which goes by the Name of the Solitary, because 'tis very seldom seen in Company, tho' there are abundance of them. The Feathers of the Males are of a brown, grey Colour : The Feet and Beak are like a Turkeys, but a little more crooked. They have scarce any Tail, but their Hind-part cover'd with Feathers is Roundish, like the Crupper of a Horse, they are taller than Turkeys. Their Neck is straight, and a little longer in proportion than a Turkeys, when it lifts up his Head. Its Eye is black and lively, and its Head without Comb or Cop. They never fly, their Wings are too little to support the weight of their Bodies ; they serve only to beat themselves, and flutter when they call one another. They will whirl about for twenty or thirty times together on the same side, during the space of four or five Minutes : The Motions of their Wings makes then a noise very like that of a Rattle ; and one may hear it two hundred Paces off. The Bone of their Wing grows greater towards the Extremity, and forms a little round Mass under the Feathers, as big as a Musket Ball : That and its Beak are the chief Defence of this Bird. 'Tis very hard to catch it in the Woods, but easie in open Places, because we run faster than they, and sometimes we approach them without much Trouble. From March to Scpteiiibcr they are extremely fat, and tast admirably well, especially while they are young, some of the Males weigh forty five Pound.
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 cap upon their Breasts, which is of a dun Colour. No one Feather is stragling from the other all over their Bodies, they being very careful to adjust themselves, and make them all even with their Beaks. The Feathers on their Thighs are round like shells at the end, and being there very thick, have an agreeable effect : They have two Risings on their Craws [Crop], and the Feathers are whiter there than the rest, which livelily Represents the fine Neck of a Beautiful Woman. They walk with so much Stateliness and good Grace, that one cannot help admiring and loving them ; by which means their fine Mein (i.e., mien) often saves their Lives.
Tho' these Birds will sometimes very familiarly come up near enough to one, when we do not run after them, yet they will never grow Tame : As soon as they are caught they shed Tears without Crying, and (obstinately) refuse all manner of Sustenance till they die.
We find in the Gizards of both Male and Female a brown Stone, of the bigness of a Hens Egg, 'tis somewhat rough, flat on one side, and round on the other, heavy and hard. We believe this Stone was there when they were hatch'd, for let them be never so young, you met with it always. They have never but one of 'em, and besides, the Passage from the Craw to the Gizard is so narrow, that a like Mass of half the bigness cou'd not pass. It serv'd to whet our Knives, better than any other Stone whatsoever.
When these Birds build their Nests, they choose a clean Place, gather together some Palm-Leaves for that purpose, and heap them up a foot and a half high from the Ground, on which they sit. They never lay but one Egg, which is much bigger than that of a Goose. The Male and Female both cover it in their turns, and the young is not hatch'd till at seven Weeks end : All the while they are sitting upon it, or are bringing up their young one, which is not able to provide for its self in several Months, they will not suffer any other Bird of their Species to come within two hundred yards round of the Place : But what is very singular, is. The Males will never drive away the Females, only when he perceives one he makes a noise with his Wings to call the Female, and she drives the unwelcome Stranger away, not leaving it till 'tis without her Bounds. The Female do's the same as to the Males, whom she leaves to the Male, and he drives them away. We have observ'd this several times, and I affirm it to be true.
The Combats between them on this occasion last some times pretty long, because the Stranger only turns about, and do's not fly directly from the Nest : However, the others do not forsake it, till they have quite driv'n it out of their Limits. After these Birds have rais'd their young One, and left it to its self, they are always together, which the other Birds are not, and tho' they happen to mingle with other Birds of the same Species, these two Companions never disunite. We have often remark'd, that some days after the young one leaves the Nest, a Company of thirty or forty brings another young one to it ; and the new fledg'd Bird with its Father and Mother joyning with the Band, march to some bye Place. We frequently follow'd 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'd a Marriage.
This Particularity has something in it which looks a little Fabulous, nevertheless, what I say is sincere Truth, and what I have more than once observe with Care and Pleasure : neither cou'd I forbear to entertain my Mind with several Reflections on this Occasion. I sent Mankind to learn of the Beasts. I commended my Solitaires for marrying young (a piece of Wisdom practis'd by our Jews) for satisfying Nature in a proper time ; and when she wants to be satisfy 'd according to the state of the same Nature, and conformable to the intention of the Creator. I admir'd the Happiness of these innocent and faithful Pairs, who liv'd so peaceably in constant Love .”
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.
When caught, they pined away quickly, refusing to eat in captivity. There are no records of a live specimen leaving the island (probably because they refused to eat in captivity), and there are no preserved skins. There are, however, plenty of bones. Scientists have noticed numerous healed bone fractures on the sternum and wings, probably because the birds hit each other so hard with their wing-clubs that they broke each other’s bones. They were territorial, monogamous, slow-breeding and aggressive towards others of their kind. They were also curious, sometimes approaching Leguat and his fellows.
Parts of the behaviour of the solitaire described by Leguat, including the aggression, can also be seen in the Victoria crowned pigeons. When nesting these will hit anything that approaches with small bone spurs on their wing-wrists. The solitaire, faced with a shrinking and inescapable island, pushed these adaptations to an extreme.
An insight into the "musket balls" was gained from research into an extinct flightless bird from Jamaica, Xenicibis xympithecus. In some specimens the clubs appeared to have been broken by a rival's clubbed wing indicating that they used their bony bludgeons in territorial fights and 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. This finding led to the suggestion that the Rodrigues Solitaire might be related to ibises. DNA evidence later confirmed it was a member of the pigeon family.
Over 50% of the island of Rodrigues has been lost due to sea-level rise and subsidence. The Solitaire evolved its lifestyle and behaviour in a shrinking habitat which would have caused increased competition for food and territory. Fierce competition may have led to the evolution of the club-like bone growth on the end of each wing.
It was initially thought the solitaire was a Dodo living on Rodrigues, and early observers called it the "Rodrigues Dodo". It turns out that the two birds were different evolutionary outcomes to similar selective pressures. Genetically they were close cousins. Both were descended from a small species of flying pigeon that island-hopped down to the Mascarene islands and reached Rodrigues and Mauritius about 10 million years ago. With abundant food and no predation, flying became unnecessary, and they lost the ability in favour of larger size and became genetically isolated from each other.
The biology of the bird challenges the scientific dating of the rocks of the island. Genetic evidence suggests a gap of around 12 million years between the last gene exchange between the Dodo and the solitaire i.e. that is when the species diverged, but some rocks dated on Rodrigues suggest the island is only 1.5 million years old.
Despite the very similar environments, the Dodo and Solitaire evolved different adaptations for the same problems. The Dodo, on the larger island of Mauritius, had a much larger, heavier beak with a hooked tip and probably used this in territorial disputes. This suggests that the Dodo was aggressive and territorial. The Dodo did not develop rattling clubbed-wings like the Rodrigues Solitaire. Instead its wings were tiny and probably only used for balance. Had it not been wiped out by invasive species, it might eventually have lost its wings entirely.
Excerpts from “The voyage of François Leguat of Bresse, to Rodriguez, Mauritius, Java, and the Cape of Good Hope” (1891) by Le Guat, Franc¸ois, 1637-1735; Oliver, Samuel Pasfield, 1838-1907
"Such is Leguat's idea of the Solitaire, and he speaks of it not only as an eye-witness, but as an observer who has been particularly interested in studying the behaviour and habits of this bird, and in doing so its relationship, though pervaded in some places by fabulous ideas, [*] still contains more historical details about the Solitaire than I find in a crowd of writings on birds more generally and more anciently known. We have talked of the ostrich for thirty centuries, and it is not known today how many eggs it lays, and how long it is to hatch them." (The Solitaire. Article by M. de Guenau de Montbeillard, Natural History by Leclerc de Buffon, by C S. Sonnini, An. IX.)
[*] " For example, about the first mating of lonely youngsters, or his thoughtful imagination made him see the formalities of a kind of marriage; to the subject of the stone of the stomach, etc. " - — As it happens, this so-called fabulous story of the stone has been fully confirmed.
In Mauritius a Society of Natural History had been formed by Mr. Telfair, Dr. Lyall, and Professor Bojer, on the foundation of an older Societe d'Emulation, when Sir Charles Colville was Governor in 1829. In the following year, the secretary of this Society, M. Desjardins, obtained certain bones encrusted with stalagmite, which had been found many years before (about 1789) in one of the caves of Kodriguez ; and this find appears to have induced Mr. Telfair to urge Colonel Dawkins and M. Eudes, who were then at Rodriguez, to make further search for the bones of Didine birds. M. Eudes succeeded in digging up in the large cavern various bones, including some of a large kind of bird which no longer existed in the island. A bird of so large a size as that indicated by the bones had never been seen in the island by M. Gory, who had resided there for the last forty years, i.e., since 1790. It may be here remarked that Pingre had remarked with regard to the Solitaire, in 1761, that M. de Puvigne had assured him that these birds were not even then totally extinct, but that they had become extremely rare, and were only to be found in the most inaccessible parts of the island. It would therefore be during the period between 1760-1790 that the final disappearance of the species may have taken place. [Footnote: “The solitaries were common to Rodrigue in the time of Francois Leguat. M. de Puvigne assured me that the race was not yet destroyed, but they have retired to the most inaccessible places of the island. " (Pingre, Journal, MS., Fol., 178.)]
The next excavations were made by Capt. Kelly, R.N., of H.M.S. Conway, at the request of Mr. Cunninghame, in 1845, but the search was unsuccessful. The bones procured by M, Telfair were exhibited by M. Cuvier in Paris, and subsequently compared by Messrs. Strickland and Melville with the remains of the Dodo in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The reconstruction of the ideal skeleton from these fragments showed that the species to which they belonged was unquestionably allied to, though not identical with, the Dodo, and it was rightly assumed that they belonged to the species described and figured by Leguat as the Solitaire. It was also discovered by these eminent naturalists that the points of agreement between these two extinct birds are ''shared in common with the Pigeons, and exist in no other known species of bird”. A triumph of ornithological diagnosis.
In 1843, two vessels were wrecked upon the Quatre-vingt Brisans at the S. W. extremity of the island [. . .] Mr. Higgin, of Liverpool, who was a passenger [on the Queen Victoria], during his enforced stay on the island for six weeks, was enabled to make some observations on the natural history of the island, which assisted Mr. Strickland, the President of the Ashmolean Society, and Dr. Melville, his coadjutor, in their magnificent monograph on the Dodo and its kindred, towards their investigation of the structure and habits of the Solitaire, which was named Pezophaps solitarius; a smaller species, Pezophaps minor, was determined in 1852.
It was not until 1864 that Mr. E. Newton, then Auditor-General in Mauritius, visited Rodriguez, and obtained some more bones ; and in the two following years a large quantity of bones was obtained by Mr. Jenner, for Mr. Edward Newton, and forwarded to Cambridge, where Professor Alfred Newton, his brother, and himself succeeded in making an admirable, though not altogether perfect, restoration of the skeleton of the long lost Solitaire, the photograph of which appears in the frontispiece. The extraordinary fidelity of Leguat's account of the bird was confirmed in almost every point. The very singular knob on the wing, caused by injuries received in fighting, fully bore out the accuracy of Leguat as to the pugnacity of these most curious birds, which seem to have fought by buffeting with their pinions like pigeons.
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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