Wednesday, 23 November 2016

An Ode to the Dodo

So, I set out writing this post on the process of expanding a novella up to a full length novel, to talk about the perils of getting the plot sound and the pleasure of fleshing out the characters and devolving their back stories and story arcs. All very interesting stuff but…


In my defence: distraction is somewhat of an occupational hazard to any creative individual.

The distraction was in the form of a news article about the auction of a complete (well 95% complete) reconstructed Dodo skeleton. The skeleton is not made up from one specimen as no actual complete specimen from one individual bird survives; even the famous Oxford Dodo has little left due to a botched taxidermy attempt. Instead, much like the Jonny Cash song ‘One Piece at a Time’ about a car that’s made up from bits of lots of other cars, the Dodo has been constructed from bones from many specimens obtained over the last thirty years, and assembled to a true likeness of the extinct creature.

Why would this distract me, you may well ask?

Well it just so happened that I had just finished reading the book, ‘A Dodo in Oxford; The unreliable account of a student and his pet Dodo.’ It is a fascinating book which was published in 2010 by Oxgarth Press and penned by Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson, who write that they found an old tired book in a second-hand bookshop in Oxford dating from the 1600’s, which claims to be a diary of a student about his pet Dodo. The diary if genuine gives a rare insight into the habits and behaviours of the instinct bird, which may actually have been the last dodo to ever have lived.

The book reproduces every page of the diary along with notes about the authors’ endeavours to investigate and prove that the diary to be genuine, along with facts about the people and places mentioned; the printing process and further information to aid the understanding of seventeenth century Oxford life. All in all it is fascinating and fabulous read, whether it is real or a centuries old student hoax.

The thing that appealed to me most about the diary within A Dodo in Oxford was the descriptions and observations of the Dodo’s character, mannerisms and behaviour. To me it seems far too accurate to be pure imagination, or the butt of a joke.

How, you may ask, would I know what a Dodo may have behaved? And in fact, why, you may ask would I be interested?

Well to answer the first question, I was brought up surrounded by birds; finches, fowls of all varieties, parrots and pigeons. My father was obsessed by birds and kept many aviaries and during the 90’s bread and hand-reared parrots. So I’ve been weaned on the knowledge of keeping and training of birds and am well versed in bird husbandry, including pigeons. As we know dodos were just very large flightless, and docile (open to discussion) pigeons. 

Me and an array of birds and animals that belonged to the family

The pigeons my family kept were not plump, and flightless but were the majestic Tumbling variety, who suddenly fall from the sky mid-slight as if dead, only to pull up yards before crashing fatally into the ground. The sight itself is awe inspiring and bird, who come in a variety of speckled whites and browns or whites and black are actually rather pretty – for a pigeon anyway. There was one pigeon in particular that me and my sister had a close bond with, Dusty, who for reasons long since forgotten, we incubated and hand-reared. Dusty lived in the house either sleeping on one of the parrot cages or in the dog basket nestled up with our two Jack Russell’s Lucky and Lucy. 

Dusty and Lucy

Dusty was NOT an intelligent bird like a parrot (who IQ’s are equivalent to a three year old human child) but he made up for it in character and clumsy wit, compounded by the fact he did not know he was a pigeon. In many ways he seems similar to the Dodo in the diary of A Dodo in Oxford, who adored the company of people, and the landlords fowl and normal domesticated pigeons.

Also having had the experience of teaching parrots of many different types, from African Greys to the endangered Lesser Vasa, and Macaws to Cockatoos, tricks and of course the odd annoying rhyme or inappropriate word, I find the Student’s observations and the results from tests he conducted on the Dodo to be strangely similar to the behaviour of parrots. So, coming back to the question: in short, I believe my background and bird keeping experiences qualifies me enough to make an assessment of the believability of the dodo behaviour in the book. 

Dusty being hand-reared

Second Question; why would I care? Well party as described above, but mostly as I’m fascinated by now extinct animals and the way they have becomes steeped in mythology, fuelled by the lack of knowledge or study of living specimens. And I’m always interested to see how these type of creatures are handled when written about in fiction. 

When thinking about Dodo’s in fiction one’s mind my curiously fixate on the Dodo from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but personally my favourite fictional dodo is Pickwick from Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels. Pickwick is the pet of Literary Detective Thursday who cloned the bird herself from a home cloning kit. Pickwick is fantastic, and shares many of the characteristics with the Dodo from A Dodo in Oxford, like being able to grasp simple task of standing on one leg (or tapping in sequence in A dodo in Oxford). 

So to answer question two, I’m interested in how a long extinct creature still inspires writer today whether in novels, or on screen (think Aardman Animations Pirates!)

All in all, I think dodo’s are great, they are comical in appearance and have a kind of naive charm. They are one of my favourite birds to doodle, and one day hopefully I’ll get to include one in a story. But for now I’ll end with this; that I hope we see many more dodos in stories in the future, and that they live on in fiction to inspire young minds and hopefully get the next generation thinking about humanities attitudes and responsibility to endangered creatures. 


  1. What a wonderful post! I have always been fascinated by the Dodo and paid my respects to the one in the Natural History Museum only to discover that it was a replica of some sort!

    1. Hi Candy,I really like dodos! I've never seen the one at the London Natural History Museum, but I've seen the one at Oxford and at Tring where they have a albino one. Of course none of them are real...

    2. I thought the one at the Natural History Museum was a stuffed one. It looked real though manky with age. But there was a small sign next to it that said it was a replica. Love them! So sad that they no longer exist.