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Dodos are gone, but who are their relatives?

When you think of animals that went extinct in the past few centuries, what animal comes to mind? Most likely the Dodo bird. Once native to the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, this large flightless bird went extinct in the 1600s.  

Despite how iconic this bird is as a symbol of extinction (raise your hand if you’ve heard the expression “gone the way of the Dodo”), there aren’t a lot of first-person accounts of the Dodo, and the ones that do exist were found in ship logs or journals of sailors who had docked on the island, as opposed to scientists who were interested in studying this bird. Even for the Dodo-curious today, there are no fully intact Dodo specimens to study.  

As a member of the Bird Team at Zoo Atlanta, I often wonder what it would be like to take care of a Dodo should one miraculously become part of our animal population. What would it eat? Would it be a solitary animal happy by itself, or would it be a sociable animal who needs to be with other Dodos? Would it do well in our Georgia hot and humid summers, and would it need a heating option in our brisk, but chilly Georgia winters?

I feel we might understand the best care to give this bird by figuring out if we already take care of any birds closely related to it. Despite early scientists thinking the Dodo was related to the ostrich, albatross and even vulture, upon further studying of what we have left of Dodo specimens, scientists of the 1800s identified specific features of the leg bones only found in pigeons. That’s right! The Dodo bird was a whopping three-foot-tall pigeon! DNA sequencing in 2002 lead to genetic evidence that the Dodo’s closest living relative was the Nicobar pigeon. Zoo Atlanta does not have these birds in our care, but we are in luck because the second-closest living relative to the Dodo is the Victoria crowned Pigeon, a species that delights many guests in our Grigsby Aviary! 

Going by the behaviors of our Victoria crowned pigeons, I think it’s safe to make a few educated guesses on what our hypothetical Dodo friend would need to thrive in a zoo. Victoria crowned pigeons are gregarious and travel in groups as they search for food, so any Dodo in a zoo would need to have a fellow companion Dodo. In terms of diet, our Victoria crowned pigeons enjoy a mix of fruits, seeds, crickets and softbill pellets. (Kind of like bird cereal.) This fits in with firsthand accounts that noticed the Dodo enjoying eating fruit. In terms of weather, Mauritius itself is an island with a tropical climate, so while a Dodo would do well with the heat and humidity of Atlanta, the coldest it gets on the island is in the 60s, so a heat option would definitely be a must once we transition into our winters.

While the Dodo itself has long been extinct, many birds (some literally right in your backyard) are threatened with extinction as well. It might be too late for the Dodo, but there’s hope for all the other birds out there. Sailors visiting Mauritius often let the domesticated animals they brought (such as dogs and cats) run free on the island, and the Dodos with no adaptions to land predators quickly fell victim to them. Getting your pets spayed or neutered and keeping them inside or on a leash when outside is one of the best ways to prevent more birds from going “the way of the dodo”!  

Emma B.
Keeper I, Birds

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl