The extinct dodo bird has captured people’s imaginations for centuries. With their large, rounded bodies, big hooked beaks, and apparent lack of fear towards humans, these odd birds fascinate us even today. But were dodos as friendly and tame as many historical accounts suggest?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Research indicates that while dodos likely had little innate fear of humans initially, they probably became more wary over time as more aggressive sailors arrived on their remote island home of Mauritius.

In this roughly 3000 word article, we’ll explore what is known about the behavior and temperament of the dodo bird. We’ll look at historical accounts describing interactions with dodos, from the first recorded encounters with Dutch sailors in the early 1600s up until the last confirmed sighting in 1662.

Using these accounts and more recent research, we’ll tackle the question of whether these famously foolish birds were truly as friendly, docile, and even stupid as their reputation suggests.

First Encounters: Tame and Trusting or Naturally Fearless?

Earliest Accounts Describe Confiding Behavior

The first European explorers to encounter the Dodo birds on the island of Mauritius in the early 1600s described them as remarkably tame and trusting creatures. The Portuguese sailor Emanuel Altham wrote in 1628 that the birds were “soe simple that men jog them downe with sticks and stones.”

Other early accounts tell of the Dodo allowing sailors to wring their necks with ease. While shocking to read today, such trusting behavior likely evolved in the Dodo due to lack of natural predators on Mauritius before humans arrived.

Did Humans Take Advantage of Their Tameness?

The confiding nature of the Dodo seems to have hastened its extinction in the 1600s and 1700s. Sailors and colonists found the large flightless birds easy prey and hunted them for food without mercy. Historical accounts describe mass killings of Dodos by humans – they were bludgeoned, stabbed, burned alive, and their nests were raided.

Humans even introduced other predators like pigs and monkeys to Mauritius that scavenged Dodo eggs. While the naivety of the Dodo was not the sole cause of its extinction, it clearly facilitated over-exploitation by colonizing humans.

Alternate Explanation: Naivete in Face of New Predator

However, some scientists propose the apparent “tameness” of the Dodo was really a naive unawareness of humans as predators. Having evolved for millions of years without significant predators on Mauritius, the Dodos had no fear of humans or instinct to flee from them initially.

Their behavior was a classic case of island tameness – like the Galapagos marine iguanas who do not perceive humans as threats. So the Dodos may not have been inherently overly-trusting, but simply ecologically naive about these strange new two-legged creatures who were so effective at killing them.

Later Sightings: Increased Wariness Sets In

As dodos began to experience more contact with sailors and colonists in the 17th century, they slowly became more apprehensive around humans. Having evolved for millions of years without natural predators on the island of Mauritius, these large, flightless birds had little fear of people at first.

But excessive hunting and rapid loss of their habitat soon changed that.

Dodos Become Harder to Approach Over Time

Accounts from the mid-1600s describe dodos as very easy to capture and kill. But by the 1660s and 1670s, historical records indicate the birds had grown much warier. Researchers believe thousands of dodos were hunted for food and sport during this period.

Sailors also introduced new species to the island that preyed on eggs and chicks. This combination of threats led dodos to perceive humans as dangerous and avoid them when possible.

Hunting and Habitat Loss Make Them More Wary

As more land was cleared for agriculture and timber, the lowland forests dodos depended on declined rapidly. The areas they could safely roost and forage shrank each year. This habitat loss, along with relentless hunting, put extreme pressure on remaining dodo populations.

Historical accounts from the late 1600s mention how difficult it had become to find dodos, “which were formerly so numerous and so easily caught.” Their future extinction seemed inevitable due to ecological changes brought about by human colonization and exploitation.

Legends of Stupidity: Examining Claims of Foolishness

Anecdotal Stories Question Their Intelligence

The dodo was a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Many early accounts by sailors and explorers portrayed them as dim-witted and easily caught. Stories circulated of how they did not fear humans and could be easily clubbed to death.

Their friendly nature and lack of flight response led to them being wiped out by humans and introduced animals within a century of being discovered in 1598.

While these anecdotal stories seem to indicate the dodo was foolish, we must be careful not to take these tales at face value. The dodo evolved in isolation with no natural predators, so they had no instinct to fear humans.

Their extinction was a tragedy, but does not necessarily mean they lacked intelligence compared to other birds.

Evaluating Brain Size and Behavioral Evidence

Some analyses indicate the dodo had a relatively large brain compared to its body size. Research by Danish zoologist Johannes Theodor Reinhardt found that based on skull examinations, the dodo had a brain comparable in size to much more agile pigeons.

While brain size does not directly correlate to intelligence, this finding challenges assumptions that the dodo had a tiny brain.

From a behavioral standpoint, the dodo was skilled at raising its young. Parents took turns incubating the single egg, and doting on the chick once it hatched. Such dedication to offspring care has been observed in other intelligent bird species.

The dodo was also resourceful, adapting its diet of fruit, nuts and bulbs as food sources changed on Mauritius.

Instincts Adequate for Isolated Island Conditions

The dodo evolved on an island devoid of predators. With ample food and no need to migrate or fly away from danger, the dodo’s abilities suited its environment. Its large, hooked beak was effective for eating and defending itself.

Ground nesting was sensible given an inability to fly and lack of tree nesting options.

While the dodo seems poorly equipped by today’s standards, it thrived before human contact. The anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the dodo’s traits were perfectly reasonable adaptations to Mauritius. He saw no evidence the dodo was less intelligent than the average bird.

Rather than foolishness, the dodo’s trusting nature reflected its island isolation.

In the end, legends of dodo stupidity say more about human egotism than the dodo’s capabilities. The dodo was well-adapted for survival in its pre-human environment. Sadly, being friendly and fearless around aggressive colonizers proved its undoing.

Were Some Dodos More Personable Than Others?

Like all animals, individual dodo birds likely had their own unique personalities shaped by both nature and nurture. Let’s explore what we know about variation among these famously friendly extinct birds.

Individual Variation Shapes Behavior

Genetics and life experiences both contribute to differences in temperament among members of the same species. Even as chicks, some dodo birds may have been more outgoing and approached human settlers out of curiosity, while others remained wary and kept their distance.

As the dodos matured, early positive or negative encounters with humans could have further influenced their future willingness to interact. A dodo who received food treats might have associated people with rewards, becoming increasingly gregarious over time.

In contrast, one who was chased off for getting too close would likely avoid contact going forward.

Physical traits could also play a role. Larger male dodos with impressive beaks and colorful facial markings may have had greater confidence approaching newcomers. More anxious dodos may have preferred to monitor interactions from a safe distance before engaging directly.

Young Birds May Have Been More Trusting Initially

According to zoologists, juvenile animals are often more curious and less fearful than mature adults. The same was likely true for young dodos venturing out from their nests for the first time.

Having no experience with humans or the dangers they posed, the first dodos to encounter Dutch sailors in the early 1600s probably approached without hesitation. Tragically, this innocent curiosity made them easy targets for hungry crewmen.

As the settlers began hunting adult dodos as well, surviving chicks would have been deprived of the opportunity to learn wariness from their elders. Each successive generation of fledglings remained overly trusting towards people, contributing to the species’ rapid demise.

In the end, the dodo’s uniformly friendly personality resulted from – and likely accelerated – its extinction at the hands of humans. With no variation in temperament, no dodos survived by avoiding interaction with the very creatures that sealed their fate.

The Friendly Dodo’s Legacy Lives On

The dodo was a large, flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius before going extinct in the late 17th century. Despite their extinction, dodos have left behind a lasting legacy and remain a source of fascination centuries later.

Dodos Were Tame and Friendly Birds

Historical accounts from early explorers and settlers describe dodos as being very tame and not afraid of humans. This was likely because the dodo had evolved without natural predators on the isolated island of Mauritius. Without the need to be wary, dodos were comfortable approaching humans.

Some stories tell of how settlers could simply walk up to dodos and catch them by hand. Others described feeding dodos and watching the curious birds eat out of their hands. Their friendly personality gave rise to their image as a harmless, fluffy bird.

They Inspired Many Pop Culture References

The unique and friendly nature of the dodo has inspired many pop culture references across literature, music, film, video games, and more. The dodo’s lasting fame is remarkable considering it was only scientifically documented for less than a century after Mauritius was first settled in 1638.

Notable pop culture uses of the dodo include appearances in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Ice Age film series, and many cartoons and video games. Expressions like “dead as a dodo” refer to the bird’s infamous extinction. Their friendly persona lives on through cultural tributes.

Icon of Extinction and Human Impact

The story of the dodo’s rapid extinction also helped bring early awareness to the concept of human-caused extinction. Within less than a century after the arrival of Dutch sailors in 1598, the dodo was hunted to extinction by settlers and invasive species.

Scientists point to the dodo as one of the first major avian extinctions. Their story represented an early warning about the power humans have to drive species populations to irreversible collapse. The friendly dodo’s demise showed that even tame, harmless species are vulnerable once invasive threats are introduced.

Today, the expression “to go the way of the dodo” references extinction. As an icon of extinction, the dodo reminds us of our ability to undo evolution through careless environmental destruction. Their sad story remains an important warning from history even centuries later.


So were dodo birds as overly friendly and foolish as historical accounts seem to suggest? As we have seen, the reality about these extinct birds is rather more nuanced. While early explorers clearly took advantage of the dodo’s initial lack of fear towards humans, contemporary researchers argue they had adequate intelligence for their ecosystem.

Later, more aggressive hunting likely made them increasingly cautious around sailors who were predating the island. However, some accounts suggest tamer behavior persisted in certain dodos, perhaps younger birds or those isolated from human contact.

While questions remain, unraveling the friendly dodo myth helps us better understand and conserve species vulnerable to human exploitation today.

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