An Extinction of Dodos

The chick’s attack on its shell succeeded in opening a small hole through which I espied its beak. My worst fears were confirmed: my boyfriend had cheated on me.

I should have known by the size of the egg. The sixteen-inch, ground-dwelling Nicobar pigeon typically produces but a single, one-ounce egg per clutch. This egg was nearly three times that size and the largest I’d seen in my eight years of breeding them.

Desperate to hide the emerging creature before dawn broke and my staff began to arrive, I broke the cardinal rule of bird breeding and moved the egg, nest, and parents. Transporting them to a seldom-used quarantine building was not without difficulty. During breeding season, birds become territorial and despite my long sleeves and safety gloves, mama Kliou’s pecking and clawing left deep scratches. Once the pigeons were ensconced in their new location, I ensured their safety from prying eyes by blocking their access to the outdoor cage, unplugging the closed-circuit television, and locking the door.

One of my bird keepers wandered by while I was tacking up a “Keep Out” sign. I told her to pass the word that the egg was taking longer to hatch than normal, the parents were agitated­­, and I’d attend to their care and feeding. My obsession with Nicobars being well known, this last instruction should have surprised no one. Finally, drenched with sweat from my exertions­­ in the sauna of a Floridian August day, I slipped into my office, sat down with a sweet iced tea––it was too early for anything stronger––and brooded.

I had met my boyfriend Nathan Davies, an evolutionary biologist, at an international conference on avian biology in Vancouver, BC. Nathan was part of an Oxford research team that had extracted bits of DNA from a dodo skeleton and scientifically proven that the closest living relative to that extinct bird was the Nicobar pigeon. As bird curator for the South Florida Conservation Park, I’m responsible for over two hundred species, including several breeding pairs of Nicobars. Professional courtesy and the fact that Nathan was cute in a nerdish way led me to introduce myself after the presentation. We clicked and were inseparable for the remainder of the conference. Six months later Nathan secured a position as an associate professor of molecular biology with Naples University and moved in with me.

Inexorably, I’m drawn to men who share my passion for the preservation and restoration of the environment. My first live-in boyfriend, Charles, was pursuing a Ph.D. in biology by studying the implications of crocodile preservation on the ecosystem of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. According to Charles, Caprivi was more beautiful than Eden. Unfortunately for him, it was also more dangerous: he inadvertently joined the food chain, courtesy of his cherished crocodiles. My second love, Eric, was born to wealth, his father having made barrels of money in the oil business. To atone for his sire’s rapacious exploitation of the earth’s resources, Eric gave both his soul and inheritance to Greenpeace. One of a dozen activists who illegally boarded a Royal Dutch Shell ship heading to the arctic for offshore drilling, poor Eric fell overboard in the midst of retching. A trawler recovered his body two days later as bycatch with a record haul of pollock.

Nathan, in contrast, was not a risk seeker; his sole experience in a dangerous locale being the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland Paris. However, he was just as committed to preserving the environment as my previous eco-beaus, often railing about mankind’s annihilation of wildlife by citing the extinction of twenty or more significant species just in the last quarter century. Nathan endeared himself by being particularly attentive to my beloved Nicobar pigeons, visiting them so often at the park that they recognized him and would call when he approached.

Found on small islands and coastal regions in the South Pacific, a Nicobar is the most beautiful of all pigeons––fact, not opinion. Its iridescent green, blue-toned, and copper feathers shimmer as it moves, suggestive of the lustrous northern lights. The bird also sports a small, tungsten-gray head and short, stark-white tail. What the Nicobar pigeon unequivocally does not possess is a large, dodoesque beak like that of the soon-to-be-hatchling in the quarantine hut.

Six weeks earlier in the midst of a rant about another Hawaiian songbird being declared extinct, Nathan proposed that the world should mount an effort to resurrect extinct species. I knew he’d had too much to drink and I suspected he was high on cocaine, but foolishly I tried to reason with him.

“You know de-extinction is not practical. First, we can’t extract enough intact DNA from what remains of these creatures. Second, we don’t know the dietary or environmental needs of the long-gone species. Also, we might inadvertently place existing species at a greater risk of extinction. Think of the scientists planning to implant mammoth skeletal DNA into elephants who are in the midst of their own extinction battle. Even were the scientists to be successful, the result wouldn’t be a mammoth but a mammophant, an entirely new creature.”

“Forget the wooly mammoth, babe,” Nathan responded. “We’ve got something better: I managed to liberate a little dodo DNA from my work at Oxford. You, me, and your Nicobar pigeons are gonna bring back the dodos!”

I felt like I’d been cold-cocked. “You can’t do this! You’ll end up in jail and the theft of the DNA will become obvious once you announce your intent.”

“I welcome the media spotlight, the bigger the better. Think of the paid speaking opportunities that will come out of this. The mega book deals. We’ll be rich. They won’t dare prosecute me,” Nathan sniggered. “The collective noun will have to be changed from ‘an extinction’ of dodos to ‘a Davies’ of dodos. Our careers will be made!”

“But more animal will become extinct. Don’t you see that if you’re successful, a torrent of money will flow into de-extinction efforts for all sorts of––”

“I’m counting on it.”

“––species, crippling efforts to preserve what we have left. It will be a disaster for our environment!”

“Au contraire: there will be more money for everyone. We’ll be able to fund the extraction of DNA from other extinct species, maybe resurrect the passenger pigeon. You and me, babe, will be revered as the founders of the Enviro-age!”

I threw him out.

At least, I tried. He was too drunk to leave that night. I ordered him and his hangover out the next morning, but returned late that evening to find a contrite Nathan waiting for me with a candlelight dinner. Blaming the alcohol-drug mix for his ill-conceived scheme, Nathan swore that his intent was always to implant the filched DNA in chickens, barnyard fowl not being on anyone’s endangered species list. When he professed his undying love and gave me a diamond-accented, white gold bracelet, I melted.

The dodo-beak hatchling proved I’d been a jackass for believing him. The lying scum must have implanted the DNA in Kliou when I was visiting my sister in Michigan last month. Well, I wasn’t going to let my birds be exploited.

Despite my overall responsibilities for care, enrichment, breeding, and training of the birds, I have a small staff so I do a lot of manual work in caring for the birds. During the course of the day I plotted my revenge and took frequent breaks from cleaning cages to check on the Nicobars. I also assisted the park veterinarian with Victoria crowned pigeon and a blacksmith plover, both of which were restless during their medical procedures.

By evening I was a stinking, smelly, scratched-up mess and the Nicobar pigeon had still not hatched. However, the physical toil had cleared my mind and I had a plan. Once again ensconced in my office with a cold drink, I called Metik Sengebau, a friend and colleague in the Republic of Palau. Metik’s knowledge of the varied fauna of his country was encyclopedic and had been a godsend to my Ph.D. research on endemic birds. We’d corresponded over the years and from time to time he would send me injured birds that could not be returned to the wild. Ironically, one of Kliou’s forebears had come from Metik with a broken wing that had never set properly. She’d been a prolific layer and her offspring had been sent to other conservation centers and reintroduced to the islands of Palau.

Since Palau was thirteen hours ahead of Florida, I caught Metik pouring his first cup of coffee. By the time I explained my situation and we discussed what needed to be done, Metik was on his third cup, awake, and ebullient. A cousin to numerous prominent officials in the small country, Metik was confident he could expedite the paperwork necessary to import the birds. My fight with the bureaucratic jungle, normally a two-month process, would be more challenging. Over the next few hours I called in favors, begged, cooed, wheedled, and promised my first-born––child, not pigeon––and was assured of a two-day turnaround “this one time.”

Long days are the norm for me, so Nathan made no comment when I arrived home after ten and went straight to bed. Later he crawled under the covers and stroked my thigh in anticipation of intimacy. I claimed a headache from the heat and humidity, rolled over, and pretended to sleep.

The sun was still below the horizon when I arrived at the park, collected food for the pigeons, and entered the quarantine shed. A small miracle awaited me: a tiny, large-billed Nicobar dodo hybrid with still-wet down. Kliou sang me a little greeting and I slipped into the cage to feed her and life-mate Turturk. Enchanted and absorbed with observing the hatchling, I didn’t hear Nathan come in until Turturk squawked.

“Just look at it! That beak! Yessirree!” Nathan was practically dancing with excitement. “No doubt about it, that bird’s got dodo. Dear old Oxford Bio Centre is going to be sorry they let me go! Just think, thirty-pound dodos walking the earth again!”

I stepped out of the cage, locked the door, and placed myself between Nathan and my birds. “It’s not a dodo,” I said. “It’s an abnormal Nicobar with a small bit of dodo DNA.”

“For now. Who knows, we might discover more dodo skeletons with DNA. In the meantime, it’s our ticket to fame!” He placed a backpack on the floor, opened it, and removed a measuring tape, notebook, and spare set of work keys I kept at home.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Taking measurements for the paper I plan to write. Did you save the shell?”

Keys in hand Nathan brushed by me, intent on opening the cage door.

“No!” I threw my arms around his neck and pulled him back. He grabbed my arms and twisted around, freeing himself from my grip. I was flung against the wall.

Emerging from a daze, I became aware that Nathan was in the cage and the pigeons were squawking. I struggled to my feet, but was too late.

Perhaps Kliou remembered the indignities Nathan had inflicted upon her while implanting the modified genes. Or perhaps it was instinctual, a mother protecting her offspring. In any event, she flew at Nathan’s face. He flung out both arms and batted the large bird away. She shifted her attack, pecking at Nathan’s feet and ankles. While trying to jump out of her way, Nathan slipped on the copious bird poop and fell. He crawled out of the cage and took refuge against a wall: knees pulled up to his chest and arms covering his head. Nathan swore a blue streak, including phrases I’d never heard before.

Not wanting Kliou to be hurt, I intervened, herding her back into the cage where Turturk and the hatchling cowered. Keys retrieved and cage door locked I turned to Nathan.

“Get out. Get out now!”

Moaning about his sprained ankle, bruised knee, and cuts from Kliou’s assault, Nathan staggered to his feet, grabbed the backpack, and limped away. I fed the birds the rest of their food, gave them water, cleaned out the cage, and left. Back at the office I drafted an email to my staff, explaining Kliou’s large egg had produced an underdeveloped embryo. I was concerned about her future viability as a breeding bird and had already located a new home for her and Turturk. Because they were both still stressed from the egg failure, I would accompany them on the journey and would be gone for a few days.

When Nathan arrived home late that afternoon, his belongings were sitting on the driveway in cardboard boxes. I walked out to meet him.

“At great expense, I’ve had the locks changed on the house, so your keys won’t work. And don’t even think about trying to see the birds; I have them under guard. If you so much as hint to anyone that there are dodo offspring at the park, I’ll expose your cocaine habit and label you delusional. By the time anyone listens to you, the birds will be long gone and you’ll have no proof. Goodbye, and have a nice life. Or not.”

Nathan began to protest, with his trademark “Hey babe, c’mon now,” but I turned my back and stalked into the house, my hands over my ears. After he’d loaded the boxes and driven off, I jumped in my car and raced back to work. Nathan was no doubt angry, frustrated, and wondering where he would stay for the next night, week, and month. However, when he calmed down and engaged in a few minutes of rational thought he’d realize I had a weak hand. I couldn’t move the birds without leaving a paper trail. It was a matter of time before he found them and proclaimed his genius to the world: Davies’ dodos, indeed!

A day later I was on my way to Palau, the return of Nathan’s bracelet—which raised a few eyebrows—covering most of the airfare. When I arrived I told Metik the whole story of Nathan’s meddling. I owed him that. He proposed to introduce Kliou, Turturk and the hatchling into a flock on one of Palau’s remote islands to live out their lives in peace. Nonetheless, we both understood that if Kliou or her offspring continued to breed, the odd birds would someday be discovered. I assured Metik that Nathan was out of the picture and the future of the birds was up to the people of Palau. Heck, they might even claim a new species: caloenas palauan, perhaps.

Although I would have enjoyed more time on Palau, I stayed but two nights: I had obligations in Florida. On the last, wearying leg home of the forty-two hour journey, I sat next to Dave, a game warden for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He was single, funny, cute like a teddy bear, and entertained me with stories about catching poachers, including a tale about the miscreant who killed an alligator out of season, and then served it at a neighborhood barbeque. “Dumb as a dodo,” Dave said. It was a sign: I accepted his invitation to dinner for the following evening.

Arriving home, I shed my scruffy travel clothes, took a long shower, changed into clean clothes, drank three cups of coffee, and drove over to see Nathan.

I got there just as they were lowering him into the ground. I dutifully bowed my head and asked forgiveness for causing pain to the blacksmith plover and Victoria crowned pigeon; I’d pilfered their sedatives for fentanyl in order to sweeten Nathan’s cocaine before I sent him packing. He’d conveniently over-dosed while I was in Palau.

Certain dodos do deserve extinction.