Ode to a Faux Dodo

Stuffed extinct bird hides centuries of intrigue under feathers

A squat, short, and bloated creature, reminiscent of a turkey crossed with an albatross, stands immobile behind the glass in Harvard’s Natural History Museum. The display’s other extinct birds, such as the puffin-life Great Auk, attest to this one’s rarity.

But Harvard’s dodo hides a darker secret.

“It’s just a replica made from duck and chicken feathers,” said Jeremiah Trimble, the curatorial associate in ornithology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology who dusts the model from time to time.

A small sign states it’s a model, and it stands alongside a real dodo skeleton, but some visitors leave thinking they’ve seen a preserved specimen—until someone tells them otherwise.

“It’s like the dodo has died again,” Peter F. Hedman ’10 said on a recent visit to the museum, after being told the bird was a fake.

Harvard’s dodo inherits an enigmatic legacy, shrouded in centuries of bloody intrigue: from the bird’s extinction in the 1640s to an 18th-century bonfire that nearly burned the world’s last specimen to ashes. Not to mention a man who may have killed to inherit the stuffed bird, the one which would eventually inspire Harvard’s fake.

A WORLDLY BIRD

The beginnings of the faux dodo are older than the University itself.

According to Lecturer on Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Andrew Berry, Portuguese and Dutch traders colonized the species’ home island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean starting in 1598.

The first extant report of a dodo was penned by an English diplomat named Thomas Herbert who sailed to Mauritius in 1629.

Five years later, Herbert recounted, “Here only is generated the Dodo, which for shape and rareness may antagonise the Phoenix of Arabia: her body is round and fat, few weigh lesse then fifty pound, are reputed of more for wonder then for food, greasie stomackes may seeke after them, but to the delicate, they are offensive and of no nourishment,” according to Clara Pinto-Correia’s book “Return of the Crazy Bird: The Sad, Strange Tale of the Dodo.”

But the Europeans brought with them rats, cats, and pigs, which swarmed the island and devoured dodo eggs until the bird disappeared from Mauritius.

A few managed to escape the island, including two which mysteriously landed in London.

In 1638, Sir Hamon L’Estrange wrote about one of the curiosity displays popular at the time, with “a strange looking fowle,” as recounted in Pinto-Correia’s book.

These dodos on display disappeared, leaving some to assume they had died in captivity.

Many, including Berry, believe one of the birds surfaced—stuffed—in the collection of John Tradescant Sr., the former royal gardener to King Charles I.

Tradescant Sr. continued to collect exotic plants and birds, helping to spawn England’s 17th-century “Cabinet of Curiosity” movement, a craze that would endure well into the Victorian era, and later propel Harvard’s faux dodo into existence.

Tradescent Sr. willed his collection to his son. By then the menagerie of oddities had grown so large that the son hired a curator and former attorney, Elias Ashmole.

Historians have speculated Ashmole became envious of the collection and connived to inherit the estate through legal means, recording Tradescent Jr.’s will so he would receive the estate when his employer died.

But Tradescent Jr.’s second wife, Hester Pookes, contested the validity of the will. What happened next is well documented.

“On 4 April 1678 Hester Pookes Tradescant was found drowned in her own shallow pond at South Lambeth,” the magazine McSweeney’s reported in an 1999 article. “With her death the final obstacle was cleared for her neighbor, Elias Ashmole, ‘the greatest virtuoso and curioso that ever was known or read of in England before his time.’”

FAD FOR THE FAUX

In 1677 Ashmole donated the collection to Oxford University, which in turn created the world’s first University Museum, the Ashmolean.

A curious clause in Ashmole’s bequeathal stipulated the museum remove decaying specimens to maintain the collection’s integrity.

By 1775, the dodo, now at Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, had grown “too tattery,” Berry said. “The dodo was probably rotting.”

The curators, not knowing this was the world’s last specimen, decided to burn it in a bonfire. They set the feathers ablaze on Jan. 8, 1775, according to Pinto-Correia’s book.

Lore has it that one curator wrested a head and leg from the flames, Berry said.

Those remains now reside in a gray box at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, according to Berry, who takes a group of Harvard student to the museum each year.

But the fire did not destroy demand for the dodo.

Decades later, in the Victorian era, the “Cabinet of Curiosity” craze reached a feverish intensity and stoked demand for fake birds.

“You would try to beat out your neighbor by having more and better oddities,” Berry said.

A company in London used the charred dodo remains and a few archival drawings to construct fake dodos and fill the void in the market. Since the drawings they used may have depicted dead, bloated dodos, today’s image of the dodo could be as skewed as a funhouse mirror.

Around the turn of the century, Harvard’s Natural History Museum decided it needed its own faux dodo, according to Trimble, who manages the bird collection in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. And there it has stayed for the past hundred years, an avian imposter.

But the bird lives on—in the genetic material Harvard researchers recently extracted from the London dodo carcass. Their analysis?

Genetically speaking, “It’s basically a big fat pigeon,” said Berry, who co-authored the book “DNA: The Secret of Life” with genetics pioneer James D. Watson. “If we were to stick it into a chicken genome, it wouldn’t be a chicken with a dodo’s face or that sort of manipulation, but it would be fascinating.”

Berry said it would probably be impossible to clone the bird. The charred dodo’s genetic material was simply too damaged and too old.

“A dodo signifies loss,” Berry said. “It says, ‘Look at this extraordinary thing—it is gone because of us.’”

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at abcohn@fas.harvard.edu.