Chapter Nineteen: Dodo Do’s and Don’ts

The news of Pam finally meeting the elusive dodos face to face was met with cheers back at the camp. The sailors understood that finding those odd birds was very important to her and to their princess even if they were still a bit cloudy on why. They offered whatever services they could give in supporting Pam’s efforts to study the dodo although Pam couldn’t think of much they could do beyond the daily task of making sure they had enough food. Pam knew that the men were growing more and more frustrated with their isolation. She realized they were keeping quiet about it in order to give her time to study the dodos now that she had found them, waiting for her to satisfy her needs before making any attempts to leave their encampment in search of the colonists and possible escape from the island. For her part, Pam felt guilty at letting her desire to observe the dodo supersede looking for the very likely captured colonists, but it was a guilt she decided she would accept, just for a while. They had, after all, come all this way! Rationalizations well in hand, Pam and Gerbald marched off into the woods daily, enjoying their prize.

Pam was in a state of bliss as she began her studies. It was as if some beloved cartoon characters from her childhood had come to magical life before her eyes, going about their daily habits for her sheer joy and entertainment. She sometimes shook her head in wonder that she was actually seeing living, breathing dodos. Finally, something good about time travel! Following quietly along behind the humorously waddling creatures Pam observed their behavior with delight. Their rare cries reminded Pam of young geese and they also chuckled to themselves while foraging, a sound much like a pigeon makes. Increasingly Pam thought they might be descended from or perhaps cousins of pigeons.

“Pam, are the dodos eating pebbles?” Gerbald asked, no longer bothering to whisper as the dodos completely ignored their presence. As long as they didn’t make too many sudden movements the dodos were unconcerned at having large primates in their midst.

“They don’t actually eat them, they swallow them down into their gullet to help digestion. The stones aid in grinding up the food, making it easier to digest,” Pam answered, watching a young specimen in hot pursuit of a stumbling beetle.

“I should try that the next time we have dried squid,” Gerbald mused.

The dodos could move surprisingly quickly in pursuit of scuttling prey. Like many bird species they were opportunists, consuming whatever they could manage to get their ponderous beaks around. A sudden lunge and the dodo’s sharp bill might snap up a juicy frog or wriggling worm. Pam was sure that amazing appendage could deliver a nasty wound if a dodo was provoked and stayed well clear of it, always moving calmly and not getting too near its business end. As far as the dodos were concerned, Pam thought they must consider her and Gerbald tremendous bores. They were ignored totally as the clucking, contented dodos went about their endless and not too difficult search for food.

Gerbald managed to find out just how powerful those beaks could be when he accidentally stumbled through a dodo nest. The nest was a rather unimpressive shallow depression dug in the mulchy forest floor, lined with a bit of down and twigs, but it was home to a magnificent white egg as big as softball. The mother of said egg, who was eating some nuts nearby, let out a shockingly loud whistle like a kettle on the boil and charged Gerbald with credible speed, her beak clacking loudly and gray, downy feathers fluffed out to give her a more menacing appearance. She was a lot larger than a turkey if not nearly as big as an ostrich and her head rose nearly to his abdomen. Gerbald shouted “Yikes,” one of his many American TV-isms, and backpedaled away from the angry creature.

Pam watched all this from the safety of a nearby tree. As soon as the ruckus started she had gone up the nearest one, standard procedure for non-climbing critter attacks in the Thuringerwald, good for wild dogs and boars but not much help against bears. As Gerbald turned to break into a run the outraged mother stretched her neck out farther than Pam would have guessed possible and closed sharply around his booted ankle. Gerbald yelped even louder, then managed to shake the dodo loose with a twist. Pam thought that the bill’s sharp tip might have pierced the leather. The dodo seemed satisfied at having exacted her toll in flesh and doubled back to make a big scene of stalking around the nest while squawking loudly, a clear message that anyone else wishing to disturb it was going to get the same thing that guy had. By now Gerbald himself was up a tree, massaging his ankle.

“Jesus crippled Christ on crutches cut from the cross!” he cursed in an accent that was more West Virginian than German, his voice full of annoyance. Pam wouldn’t say her friend had been afraid during the encounter. Gerbald didn’t do fear, but this was as discombobulated as she had seen him in a long time.

“Good gawd, where did you come up with that bit of blasphemy? Dore would pop a vein!”

“Thanks. It’s a Gerbald original. That hurt like hell! Mother Dodo put a hole in my boot and even broke the skin!”

“Consider it a sacrifice for science. Ya know, I never would have gotten to witness that nest protecting behavior without you because I’m not dumb enough to actually piss one off.” Pam started laughing despite herself. The whole thing, from her safe vantage point, had been nothing short of hilarious. “Channel Thirteen Mega Monster Afternoon Presents: Gerbald the Fearless Dinosaur Hunter vs the Menace of The Mad Dodo Mama!”

Gerbald laughed along with her. It was only his pride that had been in any danger. The dodo, despite its bluster and fearsome beak, hadn’t been any kind of real threat to him.

They stayed in their trees for a while, watching as the mollified hen settled down on her lovely big egg, from which vantage point she favored them both with stern glares until, ruffled feathers at last relaxing into their normal softness, she fell asleep.

On their way back to camp that evening, Pam looked back on the mother dodo’s defense and began to feel sad. Gerbald had been caught off guard, but if he had really wanted to he could have dispatched the creature with ease. She realized now that all his actions had been to avoid having to injure the dodo rather than to protect himself. Pam now felt embarrassed at having teased him. Even an inexperienced woodsman, say a sailor or a farmer, would ultimately prevail against the big flightless birds.

A darker thought came then, something she knew she must eventually face. Even if she could control human depredations against the dodo, there was still the danger posed by introduced species. Humans had killed their share of the poor things, creatures evolved with no natural predators present and completely unequipped to deal with any serious threats. But from all Pam had read and surmised, the major threat to the dodo’s future would be the foreign animals that would inevitably arrive with humanity, whether by design or not. Yes, she would try to stop that invasion and she would make some difference. After all, she had not allowed her colonists to bring along any mammals other than some horses, cattle and sheep, but the rats would be on that ship, too. Even immaculate Redbird carried vermin, despite her and Dore’s efforts to eradicate them. How many rats had swum ashore during the wreck? Would they find today’s nest and break that pretty shell into a hundred sticky pieces while the poor mother squawked and chased them about in vain?

Gawd, Pam, she thought, there is no point in fretting about this now. We haven’t even gotten from Point B to C yet in this mess and here you are worrying about Y. She smiled, deciding to chew on the problem a little more anyway. Well, it’s going to come up eventually. Might as well have a plan.

Dogs, cats, pigs, rats and, according to the books, monkeys would be her enemies in the future and she would have to come up with ways to control their populations on the island. She shook her head, knowing that if she lived to see it the day would come when she would find herself in the role of island animal control officer and did not relish the prospect much. Getting the bats out of the Baptist church had put her off dealing with mammals of any sort. She had been able to manage that episode humanely without resorting to killing the poor things, but it would be otherwise with stray invaders on Mauritius. She would have to be ruthless.

Satisfied with her initial studies, Pam began her next project, painting portraits of the dodos. This was for scientific purposes, of course, as well as the genuine pleasure the art gave her. The problem was, despite their general appearance of ungainliness, the big birds covered a lot of ground in a day, sometimes traveling many miles on their sturdy, yellow, four-toed feet. Upon finding them in the morning she would get her bamboo easel, a hand-crafted gift from the bosun, and her precious watercolors all set up in a nice, sunny clearing, but before she could even finish the initial sketches the dodos would plow through the area’s edible matter and then wander off, leaving Pam alone to repack her gear and follow. This happened again and again, she was beginning to get frustrated until she hit on an idea.

She and Gerbald spent the next morning gathering nuts, seeds, fallen fruits, beetles and whatever else they could find for dodo treats. After they had a sizable store in hand, they caught up to the dodos at their latest hangout. Overall, the birds seemed to move in a very loose but discernible flock, groups and subgroups working over their various territories in what Pam thought must be a slow, weeks-long, loop, allowing the foraged land time to replenish before coming around to it again. Pam sat up her paints and got to work. A while later, just as the dodos were about to move on, Pam reached into her bag of goodies and threw a healthy hand full of dodo treats across the clearing to the ever hungry birds.

“Here you go, sweeties! Eat it up, yum, yum!” Pam called and cooed while Gerbald rolled his eyes toward the heavens. The dodos looked at Pam with their uncanny yellow eyes, then looked at the treats scattered at their feet. With what Pam felt for sure was a shrug of their tiny wings, they began pecking at the unexpected offering.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Gerbald muttered. “Didn’t you say we don’t want to make pets of them?”

“I’m not! I’m just feeding a few pigeons in the park, that’s all! Just look at this sweet afternoon light. This is great for painting!” Whistling a merry tune, she went back to it. A quarter of an hour later, the dodos had eaten all of Pam’s treats and were beginning to move off again when Pam called out a friendly “Yoo-hoo!” and threw them yet another double handful. This time without a pause, the dodos began to eat while Pam went back to painting. After several more repetitions, Pam beamed at what was turning out to be a fine painting. It might even be the one to use for the happy little chapter she would add to her book, Birds of the USE, detailing how the dodos would not be going extinct in this world, thank you very much.

After several hours, Pam decided that anymore work on the piece would just be fussing, so she set about getting her gear ready for the hike home. The dodos were finishing up their latest treat as she woke Gerbald from the nap he had been taking, not part of his standard bodyguard and look-out routine, but then back in Grantville they hadn’t been out in the field every day, all day, either. Deeming these woods safe enough and Pam having as nearly a good an eye and ear for intruders as his own, Gerbald got some extra sleep in the way of old soldiers from time immemorial, wherever and whenever he could.

“Come along, Rip Van Winkle. It’s almost the eighteenth century. Let’s get back.”

“Wake me when its the twentieth century or as soon as every European owns a colored TV,” he mumbled sleepily from beneath the wide and warped brim of his floppy, mustard-colored hat. He rose languidly to his nearly six feet and stretched like some gray-whiskered, but still deadly, jungle cat. Pam marveled at his ability to sleep anywhere as she finished packing up her gear. As she made ready to leave the clearing, she noticed that the dodos, although finished with their snacks a while ago, hadn’t moved on. Instead, they all stood around staring at her.

Pam smiled, a bit surprised at this new behavior. Then she laughed a bit as she realized what was going on.

“Oh, I see, you want another treat! Sorry, kids. I gave you all I had. You’re on your own again!” She turned away from them, pleased with her cleverness and the nice piece of art it had yielded and began to walk toward the trail leading home. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that Gerbald had not fallen into step with her and was still watching the dodos.

“Um, Pam? You best have a look,” he said in a very calm voice.

Pam turned around to see that the dodos, rather than melting back into the forest in search of food, had all moved closer to her, a group of six adults and a couple of youngsters now just a few yards away. They stood in a loose clump, their somehow disconcerting yellow eyes all trained unblinkingly upon Pam. Frowning a bit, Pam took another two steps toward the edge of the clearing. The dodos did the same.

“Shit! They think I’m going to give them more treats.”

“One dares not utter the phrase ‘I told you so.’ Oops. I uttered it,” Gerbald commented.

Pam screwed up her face to stick out her tongue at him. She took another step and the dodos followed again. Exasperated, Pam waved her arms around in front of her in what she hoped would be seen as a gesture of discouragement and called out “Shoo! Go on now, I don’t have any more for you, now git!” The dodos’ heads bobbed around watching her arms gesticulate and then took a moment to sniff around their leathery feet to see if their treats had been let loose by these actions. Not finding any, their gaze returned to Pam.

She looked to Gerbald for support but he just shrugged his shoulders.

“Don’t look at me! You’re the bird lady,” he told her. “Let’s just try walking away. They will get bored eventually.”

Nodding nervously, Pam turned and headed down the trail at a brisk-but-not-too-brisk pace, followed closely by Gerbald. The dodos came along after, one by one down the narrow path through the forest. Pam was worried that the large, and in such numbers, potentially dangerous, birds might try to rush her, but so far the dodos were content to politely wait for more treats. Following the treat giver seemed their best bet.

An hour later they emerged along the shore near their encampment. Pam and Gerbald, followed by a neat line of dodos. Pers saw them first and whistled up Dore from her kitchen to come have a look. Soon all the sailors stood watching the bizarre procession.

“I feel like the Pied Piper,” Pam grumbled, but managed a smile for them, looking for all the world as if she were completely in control of the situation.

“Are these the famous dodos?” the bosun asked, regarding the unusual creatures with wide eyes.

“Yes, indeed they are. Dore, do you happen to have any nuts stored away?” Pam’s voice held just enough tinge of desperation to send her friend hurrying into the kitchen to find some. The dodos formed a semi-circle facing Pam, all waiting expectantly for their next feeding. Dore returned with a banana leaf basket full of nuts, which she cautiously handed to Pam, never once taking her suspicious eyes off the gathered birds.

“Gawd, I really hate further associating humans with food, but at this point I have to do something,” Pam told Gerbald, quietly.

“I’m not sure why you are so edgy, they are just pigeons in the park after all,” he teased. Pam gave him a quick scowl then turned to her flock.

“Here chicky-chickies, have some more nuts!” she called sweetly and threw a heaping handful to the dodos, who eagerly gobbled them up with a gentle clacking of their bills.

“Here, hold this,” she ordered Gerbald, thrusting the basket into his hands. Before he could protest she slipped around behind him and made a beeline for her hut, climbing the stairs and slamming the door shut behind her with a loud slap of bamboo. In the meantime, the dodos had finished their snack and were staring at Gerbald and the basket of nuts he now held.

Dore began laughing as did the sailors, all of whom were carefully backing away from the strange creatures in their midst.

“Ha!” Dore called back to her flummoxed husband. “It looks like you are left holding the bag!” she kidded him before disappearing into the safety of her grass-roofed kitchen.

Gerbald shook his head ruefully at being so easily duped. With a sigh he smiled graciously at the waiting dodos.

“Come along then, my feathered friends. Let us see if Gerbald can give you the slip.” The dodos followed him as he led them away down the beach into the twilight. Pam wouldn’t even come out for dinner that night and eventually Dore sent Fritjof with something for her to eat, growling that she finally understood why the uptime phrase “for the birds” implied something foolish or worthless.

The next day the dodos were hanging around a little ways down the beach, scavenging the tide flats for bits of seaweed and snails. Pam watched from what she considered to be a safe distance through her birding scope as one of the larger dodos managed to catch a scuttling crab. Gerbald was taking the day off from scientific study in order to pout. He had been up well after dark playing a game of hide and seek with his erstwhile followers and had little use for Pam at the moment. Pam just smiled. She knew he’d get over it sooner than later, understanding that no trickster ever enjoys being among the tricked.

The dodos decided to make the beach their home for the time being, sleeping under the palms and occasionally wandering through camp in search of a treat. Although Pam warned everyone not to feed them, they inevitably did anyway. The ugly-cute critters were just too hard to resist. The lonely sailors enjoyed the novelty of having pets about, even ones as odd as these. The only member of the party who was immune to the dodo’s charms was Dore, who had no fear of their sharp beaks and who shooed them away from her kitchen and gardens with the mighty force of her bamboo-handled grass broom.

During their stay on the island, the Redbird castaways had been relying on seafood for their protein. There were very few birds present that might be considered game. Gerbald had snared a few black-feathered marsh birds along the river. Pam thought they might be some kind of moorhen, but they tasted pretty much like a mudflat might and had little meat on their sharp bones. They had also tried several species of sandpiper and gull, but the rubbery flesh stank of fish and was so unpalatable they ended up using it all for bait.

The dodos had been among them for several weeks now and their novelty had worn off. Pam realized, to her horror, that the attitude of the men toward their pets had subtly changed. Pam now saw a look of hunger on their faces as they watched the fluffy dodos wander around the camp. Dodos were the largest and juiciest bird they had seen since being marooned, resembling in many ways a plump turkey. They no longer were feeding the dodos for amusement sake, it seemed, but rather to fatten them up for the cooking pot! Even Dore was sneaking a predatory peek at them as she worked on the crab and coconut curry they were having yetagain for the noonday meal.

Pam decided she had better head this disconcerting development off right at the pass. As the men finished their breakfast she walked out into the morning sunlight and harrumphed for their attention.

“All right, you guys,” she announced. “I know everybody is hungry for meat but just let me tell you, don’t even think about eating a dodo, not even one! Besides, the books all say they taste terrible!” She was really getting mad now and stomped around among the stunned sailors, making sure they all got a good look in her eyes and understood that she meant business! “You lot know how to fish don’t you? Well, get off your butts and start fishing! Now! Move!”

The men, hardened navy seamen all, leaped up at her fiery command to prepare the various fishing tackle they had contrived, while Gerbald hastily repaired into the underbrush to gather materials to weave into a new fish trap. Dore hunched over her coconuts with a guilty expression, while Pam continued to stalk up and down the beach keeping a watchful eye on the oblivious dodos. We had better get out of here before history repeats itself Pam thought darkly, denying to herself that she, too, was beginning to wonder what a nice fat dodo might taste like.


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