The Dodo bird is one of the most famous extinct animals both because of its peculiar look and because it’s mentioned in almost every middle-school biology textbook. What’s probably most fascinating and emblematic about the Dodo bird isn’t its bizarre body shape, it’s thick, sturdy legs, or its giant beak which extends to the back of the bird’s face, however – it’s how short-lived its presence in the known animal kingdom was.
The Dodo bird was discovered in 1598 by Dutch sailors on the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. By 1662, however, just 64 years later, it was already extinct. The Dodo was savagely hunted by sailors and the invasive species they had introduced to the island of Mauritius, plus its habitat was quickly devastated by the rapid deforestation of the island.
The Dodo bird was “removed” from the face of the planet so quickly that most people at the time didn’t realize the bird even existed. And many of those who had heard of it just thought it was nothing more than a myth, a sailor fairy tale like that of mermaids and leviathans.
It’s that incredibly quick extinction of the entire Dodo species that has booked this bird a permanent spot in our biology textbooks – as a reminder of how devastating our actions can be to the fauna of our planet.
And yet today, a relative of the Dodo is threatened with a similar fate. The Nicobar pigeon is considered to be the closest living relative to the Dodo bird even though it doesn’t look very much like it.
Caloenas nicobarica, as the Nicobar pigeon is scientifically known, is native to islands and areas in Southeast Asia such as the Solomon Islands, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, as well as Vietnam and the Philipines. Physically its body is shaped like most western pigeons but with sturdier legs and a somewhat bigger body. The most eye-catching feature of the Nicobar pigeon, however, is its stunning coloring.
Unlike most other pigeons across the world, the Nicobar pigeon has been lucky enough to live in areas without too many natural predators to hunt it down. This has allowed the species to evolve peacefully with these bright and captivating colors without attracting unnecessary attention. Yes, people native to the region have hunted the pigeon as a source of food but before the European settlers brought firearms to the region, such hunting efforts weren’t significant enough to endanger the colorful bird. Of course, all that has changed in the last several centuries.
Today, the Nicobar pigeon is considered “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The reasons behind the rapidly dwindling population of this beautiful bird are very similar to those of the Dodo’s extinction:
- Overly excessive hunting – for food, for trophies from the birds’ beautiful feathers, as well as for profit.
- Massive deforestation – with the rapid increase of both tourism and the native human populations in the birds’ habitat, the Nicobar pigeons are quickly running out of living space.
- Introduction of invasive predators – cats and rats are especially problematic for the Nicobar pigeons as they are expert climbers and threaten both their nests and the adult birds themselves.
One of the key contributing factors that make Nicobar pigeons such a lucrative hunting target is their gizzard stones. Also called gastroliths, these are normal stones or grit that some birds like the Nicobar pigeon swallow intentionally. The reason they do that is that they don’t have teeth to chew harder foods with so instead they swallow stones which end up in their gizzards – a unique organ in their digestive tracts which is followed by the intestines. Because the swallowed stones are too big to continue down the birds’ digestive tracts, they remain in the gizzard – hence the name “gizzard stones” – where they wobble around and help “chew” the harder foods eaten by the birds such as seeds and buds.
Over time, the stones themselves become rounder, smoother, and smaller due to the “polishing effect” of the animal’s stomach and gizzard. Once the stones become small enough, they simply continue down the digestive tract together with the food and are eventually excreted or regurgitated.
And why would hunters care about stones eaten by pigeons, one might ask? Because they are used in jewelry! That’s right, this increasingly rare and gorgeous bird, the last closest relative to the extinct Dodo, is being killed in untold quantities because of the smooth pebbles it eats and “chews” with.
There is good news, however.
Unlike with the Dodo where the rest of the world neither knew nor cared what was happening, today people are trying to help these endangered animals. One key helping factor is that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has made the Nicobar pigeon “illegal to trade”, meaning that these birds are not available as pets neither in their native countries nor in the outside world.
Another factor that’s of huge help is the so-called “Nicobar Pigeon Species Survival Plan” – an organized effort by 55 zoos and institutions around the world to house 450 to 500 Nicobar pigeons as an “insurance” against the possible extinction of the species. The birds are kept in captivity, yes, but are also engaged in formal breeding and are frequently transferred to different zoos and facilities to keep them adaptable to new environments. The birds are also taught and trained on how to survive the predators humans have introduced to their natural habitat.
The idea of this insurance plan is to make sure that there’s always a “reserve” of birds to fall back on if the Nicobar pigeons left in the wild are ever fully exterminated. It’s a strategy that environmental protection activists and organizations have used for thousands of other species and that has saved many from guaranteed extinction.