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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.


The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.


During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.


Hay Editor! Caption this - the Penguins

Ferrebeekeeper tries not to portray the world in black and white…yet some important issues are black and white. Additionally, some important issues are unable to fly. In fact some important issues live only in the southernmost reaches of the southern hemisphere and are formidable ocean predators which hunt squid, shrimp, and fish. These issues establish strong pair bonds for a season and work together to raise a single nestling. Um…which is to say that today is World Penguin Day! Ferrebeekeeper proudly salutes our many friends from the order Sphenisciformes! Everybody is familiar with these endearing, beautiful birds. Yet looking at penguins more carefully reveals that they are less familiar (and more remarkable) than we think.


In the media, penguins are always portrayed as debonair bon vivants who are trying to kill Batman, or as the sidekick of villainous ice wizards, or as weak-minded props for Jim Carrey to fart on. Needless to say, this does them a terrible injustice. Penguins diverged from other birds before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. The first basal penguins were the contemporaries of dinosaurs and giant mosasaurs. For 70 million years the birds have evolved to simultaneously live in swirling freezing oceans and on profoundly inhospitable land environs like desert coasts and icebergs.


Penguins look like sad little drunken gnomes when they are walking on the land (although walking on ice cliffs is no mean feat for any creature). Underwater, however, they look like next generation naval weaponry. They can turn and maneuver with preternatural speed.


One of the most remarkable pieces of footage I have seen of any animal was an underwater reel of a Gentoo penguin hunting a school of shimmering pilchard type fish. With lightning speed, the school of fish changed to evade the bird. The school swelled into a ball and then elongated and then melted away into glistening tendrils. It formed gyres and broke into equal halves and used every advantage of the 3-d underwater habitat to get away. The fish moved faster than I could see and darted off in ways I could not anticipate or understand, but always the penguin was faster and more nimble. She out-thought the group mind of the fish. She was unfazed by their otherworldly dazzle and picked them off one after the next with relentless ballet-like grace (all while swimming underwater on a breath of air). I wish I could describe it properly (or just find the footage online). It was beautiful in an overwhelming and otherworldly way…so perfect it was scary. And it convinced me that penguins have a rightful place among the greatest predators–like lions, saltwater crocodiles, peregrine falcons, (although those creatures eat carrion or steal other animal’s dinners, whereas penguins are super predators who only eat live prey).

There are 17-20 species of penguin, depending on which ornithologist you ask. Some dwell in temperate portions of Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and South America, but others are more familiar as the creatures of the extreme frozen south.  Some of these march  inland to the plains of Antartica where they spend the winter in nightmare cold and darkness. They are the only large animals to inhabit that frozen continent (unless you also count Norwegian scientists).


The root of the word penguin is unknown. The word looks French, but it appeared in English and Dutch sources, before it appeared in French ones. Some linguists surmise that it came originally from the Welsh word for great auks which were the penguin analogue of the northern hemisphere. Great auks are forever gone from Earth…extinct since the mid nineteenth century (when they were hunted to death for their down and so their flesh could be used as fishbait).


I bring up the sad stupid fate of the Great Auk for a reason. Penguin populations are plummeting. Usually humans kill off animals by hunting, industrial poisoning, or habitat destruction by means of development. Although it is true that the penguins which live in inhabited locations like Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, face pressure from housing development (or sometimes from oil spills like the poor guys in sweaters above).  However the penguins in the southern oceans are facing threats from the planetary changes which the oceans are undergoing.  So world penguin day is important and meaningful…but I’m not exactly sure what we need to do to help these ancient formally dressed predatory friends.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

July 2020