The Dodo and the Solitaire: A Natural History by Jolyon C. Parish

It’s depressing to contemplate that two extinct species could be summed up in a single book — but if it must be so, it should definitely be a book as magnificent as this one. The Dodo and the Solitaire is a large, handsome book that offers as complete a record as is now possible of these two birds, cousins slaughtered so quickly and completely that the world may never fully understand exactly what was lost.

In the aim of addressing the many mysteries that surround the Dodo and the Solitaire, author Jolyon C. Parish has done no less than assembling every known contemporary account and illustration of the two birds, along with a great many secondary sources. Non-English accounts are freshly translated. Twenty-one of the paintings and lithographs are reproduced in glossy color, along with the innumerable black-and-white illustrations. The sad fragments currently or formerly found in museums are analyzed, and photographs reprinted where available — there is little more poignant than figure 5.15, captioned in part “The last known images of the BM [British Museum] foot?” In terms of not knowing what one has got til it’s gone, the confused saga of the foot is hard to top; authors have even mislabeled which side of the Dodo it came from.

Parish is not content to merely report on the trageo-comedic history of early Dodo studies*, however. He himself describes (in a fine afterword that, along with a fine introduction, brackets the drier and more academic text of most of the book) his work as “scraps saved from oblivion”, and emphasizes the ongoing ambiguity surrounding nearly every aspect of the natural history of these birds, from their behavior to their level of sexual dimorphism and even to their very color. But he also strives where he can for clarity and new information. I was intrigued, for instance, by the series of illustrations comparing all known contemporary dodo illustrations with each other and with the morphology of the dodo skeleton, a series that vividly illustrates the degree of artistic license taken or eschewed by various artists.

Clocking in at 374 densely-printed pages (not counting the notes and index,) this is a hefty work designed for serious libraries. But if you seriously want to know everything there is to know about the Dodo and the Solitaire, this is unquestionably your go-to source.

*the book leans heavily towards the Dodo, but this is perhaps unavoidable, as the paucity of evidence on the life of the Solitaire is even more severe.

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at