Decoding the Dodo

Martin Aveling

When you think of a dodo, what comes to mind? A grotesquely obese bird? Or the word ‘extinction’ perhaps? I would have said much the same, until last year when I was commissioned to draw one by an avid fan of this iconic bird. As it turns out, our infamous emblem for extinction didn’t look anything like you think it did. Most notably, it has been fat shamed for centuries!

The unenviable link to extinction, although tragic, is fair. Most of us would be familiar with the phrase, “dead as a dodo”. Estimates vary on the actual date of extinction, but the dodo had almost certainly become rare only 30 years after being ‘discovered’ in 1598. Once their island home of Mauritius was colonised by humans and other invasive species that came with them, this poor bird’s fate was quickly sealed. It was another couple of hundred years before scientists became interested in the dodo, but by that time almost no evidence remained and the mystery of the dodo has persisted until now.

Tim (a scientist) and I decided it would be fun to try and come up with a drawing that more accurately represented this curious, misunderstood bird. Tim reviewed all the scientific papers published to date; I trawled the internet and poured over a fantastic book by Errol Fuller, ‘Dodo: From Extinction to Icon” (2002). My job was to use available science as a guide, but then add creativity in interpreting the best written accounts and artworks, whilst attempting to weed out the hearsay and doodles. This is what we came up with, and how we got there (Tim’s notes are in blue).

Size and weight 

Reading the various papers on the dodo the one consistent theme is that existing depictions are fatter than the bird would have been. The traditional drawings are likely to have been influenced by an artwork by Flemish painter Roelandt Savery around 1626, who depicted a squat, short-legged, awkward-looking bird. Most famously, the ‘Savery dodo’ probably formed the basis for the 1865 Dodo drawing by Sir John Tenniel, illustrating Louis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The plump depiction is disputed, however, based on modern body mass estimation techniques. It is thought that the reason for the plumpness in some drawings might be either seasonal fat cycles or that pictures were based on over-fed captive birds. There seems also to have probably been a fair amount of copying earlier depictions, thus propagating the ‘plump’ characteristic. Recent body mass estimates include Angst et al. (2011) who estimated the mass at 10.2 kg, Brassey et al. (2016) who estimated the mass at 10.6–14.3 kg, and van Heteren et al. (2017) who estimated it at around 12kg. Earlier estimates had been as much as 21.1 kg.

Dodo expert Dr Julian Hume has described it as a “giant, flightless pigeon”. You might be surprised to learn that its closest living relative is indeed a pigeon - the rather resplendent, Nicobar pigeon. As well as being a leading scientific authority on dodos, Dr Hume also has the enviable ability to skilfully negotiate the creative side of the brain, and has produced a number of dodo artworks himself. It was largely his research and art that provided the basis for my drawing.

Who knows what the dodo looked like in the flesh? No one. Even skeletal remains are thin on the ground. Therefore, as a starting point I looked at the Durban dodo skeleton reconstruction (a 3D model based on the only two near complete dodo skeletons that exist) and from that started adding meat to the bones through a series of rough sketches.

Why may artists through the years have exaggerated the plumpness of the dodo? Exaggeration can be a compulsion of creativity, and many depictions of animals from the 17th and 18th centuries anyway favoured a more rotund figure. Although somewhat disputed by Fuller, I am drawn to the theory that many illustrations were based on captive birds. I once observed zoo meerkats as the basis for a new artwork, and they ended up looking more like little, fluffy prairie dogs than the slim, wiry creatures that are wild meerkats. We know much more about animal husbandry than we did during the dodo’s brief relationship with humans, so the idea that people struggled to replicate the diet and natural conditions of the dodo also has the ring of truth to me. The most recent publication on body mass by van Hetersen et al. (2017) described the dodo as “neither slim nor fat”. By all account the dodo was roughly the size of a male mute swan. 

Feet and legs

There does not seem to be much dispute about what the feet looked like – there are a number of preserved examples (e.g. the London foot from Strickland and Melville, (1848) - and the feet are similar in most pictures. The suggestion by Nicholls (2006) is that the more accurate illustrations before the Savery dodo show longer, more powerful legs and a more upright stance.

In order to accentuate the dodo’s long and powerful legs, I picked a perspective where we are viewing the bird at its level. I wanted my dodo to look like it could manoeuvre itself with ease, primed and ready to turn on a sixpence if it’s a matter of nabbing the juiciest papaya.

Feathers, Colour and general appearance

Most depictions show the feathers on most of the body as being visible, individually, apart from the upper neck and head, which are presented as being more of a fluffy down.

There are some depictions and reconstructions of paler birds, but the literature suggests that a darker bird was more likely, as is more commonly depicted. Nicholls (2006) suggests the bird was “grey or blackish” and Hume (2006) feels that the rather dull Mansur dodo, painted in about 1625 is  “…almost certainly the most accurate and reliable coloured rendition of the Dodo that has survived.”

Since no one actually knows for sure what the dodo looked like, there was plenty of room for creative license here, and I was even encouraged by Dr Hume himself to put my own personal mark on the portrayal. I used the 1625 Ustad Mansur painting as a starting reference for the base coat and then began layering up. During my research I was also advised by evolutionary scientist, Ben Garrod, that the dodo was considered quite “drab” looking. As such, I darkened the feathers a bit and made the overall colouration more uniform. A darkish brown bird was what I had in mind. However, given that there is so much variety in coloured renditions of the dodo throughout history, and that its closest living relative is so vibrant, I couldn’t resist bringing in a bit of flair. As a compromise I worked in some iridescence. I feel that something must have captured the imaginations of those Dutch and Portuguese sailors as they negotiated the shorelines of Mauritius, like sirens calling them in as the sun danced around their bodies. Of all the animals these sailors encountered, it is clear that there was a particular fascination with this magical bird that later became known as the dodo.  Of course, for hungry men encountering land at the end of a long voyage, the appeal may have been influenced by their inability to fly away.

Beak and head

There are quite a few studies of the beak and the basic, highly iconic, shape seems to be quite consistent in paintings. What is not consistent is the colour, which again varies greatly. Perhaps there is no real evidence on which to base the colour of the beak. Some depictions show a pale blue part on the under-beak, while the tip of the upper beak varies from black, to yellow to red. Hume tends to depict the dodo with a bluish face and yellow tips to upper and lower beak.

Regarding the nostrils, which are usually shown as gaping, Nicholls (2006) suggests that this is probably an artefact of the skin drying (which opens the nostrils up) and that in living examples these would likely have been more closed and less prominent.

The head is so iconic that I didn’t want to tamper too much with it. Dr Hume made a number of beak studies from a mummified dodo head in Oxford, which I liked very much. Not wanting to get too carried away, I chose to respect the expert and went with his favoured colour scheme. To add more suspense, I made the beak slightly open with the tongue out, as if about to let out a sharp alarm call. Bringing something back from the dead is a challenge, so anything to make it look more alive was a priority.


All depictions I have found have the same small, vestigial wings, so there seems to be little to dispute that. The vast majority, including the Mansur dodo, show the wings as having a dark leading edge and paler tips.

I liked having the colour of the wing tips mirror the tip of the beak. We know that the dodos lived in large groups. Perhaps this could have served to intensify the safety in numbers illusion? Or maybe I just like a bit of symmetry? Do you see how we artists can so easily get carried away?! Pure conjecture, of course, but the wings are right up there in the least discussed part of the dodo anatomy, so I felt comfortable putting creativity on autopilot here.


The highly characteristic fluffy tail is quite exaggerated in some images. The Mansur dodo features a dodo with no tail. Richona and Winters (2014) suggest that the Mansur dodo and the Bundi dodo lack tails because the artists were “…acquainted with the species and knew it lacked a tail.”  However, the majority of depictions do have a small tail.

Pin the tail on the dodo. The tail, or lack of, caused me much deliberation, but in the end I chose to side with those artists and neglect it altogether. To me the tail always looked out of place, particularly for a bird so seemingly well adapted to living on land. Many accounts and sketches are likely to have been derived from dead and dismembered specimens. Dodos were viewed as food before it was generally decided that they did not taste “just like chicken”. Perhaps the dodo’s plump appearance was deceptive? Like a crisps packet that’s sixty percent air, maybe those large plumes bore little meat beneath? I chose to depict these plumes hanging from the rear to mimic the 1625 Mansur dodo shape, which could have given the impression of a tail, especially when running from machete yielding bipedal monsters.

Since most dodo depictions were inspired by, or copied from, the Roelandt Savery 1626 dodo painting, this may well have propagated the false chubby impression that persists in our minds today. We don’t know what reference he used to create his piece. Ustad Mansur was a court painter for the Mongol emperor, and he painted a number of birds from a menagerie at Surat, India, including a dodo. Fuller described his drawings as “naive in execution’, and I am inclined to agree. However, other birds he painted are fairly easily identifiable, so we should presume his dodo was reasonably trustworthy. Crucially, his dodo has no tail.

 In summary

This was so much fun to do, and although all I did was draw a picture, I’ll admit to becoming quite attached to this piece. Did the dodo look like this is anyone’s guess. The lack of any definitive reference allowed for a great degree of creative license, and I looked at all manor of birds, including pigeons, chickens, turkeys, guineafowls, Ibises, emus, ostriches, cassowaries, peacocks, hoopoes, hornbills and more to come up with my version. It stands about 15 cm tall by 10 wide. To draw it I used pastel pencils (by Derwent) on Canford Card (by Daler-Rowney). In the process I made a lifelong friend in Tim, and was left with a feeling of genuine creative satisfaction. We are delighted to share with you our best guess.

Tim's last note to me was...

Perhaps depicted with a slightly cocked head and a look in its eye as if to say, “what on earth is this all about?”

We did our homework, but our intention was also to raise a smile :)

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