Bird Intelligence -- The Dodo
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Any discussion of Bird Intelligence should pause to consider the Dodo -- an extinct bird whose name has for 400 years been synonymous for stupidity.

Contempt for the Dodo's intellect started in 1581 when Dutch sailors first sketched pictures of the flightless bird on the uninhabited island of Mauritius.  This 50-pound bird stood about three feet tall, and resembled a big-headed turkey with foolishly small wings.  Unaccustomed to predators, the dodo showed no native fear of humans and was easily slaughtered, although the taste was pronounced as "nauseating."

Since the dodo is no longer around to defend itself, let us take up the question -- did the Dodo deserve its dumb reputation?

Richard Owen noticed the Dodo's brain was indeed small for a bird of its size.  However, flightless birds are not normally stupider than their winged ancestors, and Dodos are descended from pigeons that presumably arrived at Mauritius within the last 10 million years.


The Dodo's fearlessness is typical of isolated bird populations, a fact noted by Charles Darwin during his trips to the Galapagos.  Although the Dutch sailors are widely blamed for the Dodo's extinction, evidence suggests that they more likely succumbed to rats and monkeys brought by settlers -- a common fate for ground-nesting birds in tropical islands.  Nor were the Dodos entirely passive -- eyewitnesses suggest the bird could inflict painful bites defending itself or its young. Finally, new evidence studying skeletal remains indicate the supposedly fat, lazy Dodo might actually have been a powerful runner.  Certainly Dutch sailors commended on the toughness and stringiness of the meat.

Was the Dodo smarter than we think?  We will never know. The last Dodo was dead by 1700, and the last moth-eaten museum specimen was discarded in 1755.  All that remain today are dusty, fragmentary bones -- and the bitter lesson that extinction lasts forever.

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