Friday, April 26, 2013

Pelican Mythology

Some Mythology and Folklore Concerning The Pelican


by Catherine Greenleaf

The pelican is a strange combination. She looks prehistoric with her large head, leathery pouch and five-foot wingspan. Yet she also appears rather comical with her clown-like walk as she waddles on the ground. Believe it or not, this bird has ancient ties harkening back to the Egyptians, Peruvians, and the early Christians.

In Christian mythology, the pelican is a central figure. The early Christians revered the pelican as a feminine symbol of Christ. This is because the pelican has always been portrayed in old lore as the only bird willing to sacrifice herself for her young. The pelican was said to pierce its own breast with her beak in order to feed blood to her starving hatchlings.

As a result, the early Christians likened the pelican mother’s selfless sacrifice with the sacrifice made by Jesus allowing himself to be crucified. Especially connected to the pelican is the moment when a guard pierces Christ in the side with a spear to make him bleed. This notion of shedding one’s own blood for the benefit of all humankind has forever linked the pelican with the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Many early Christian altars featured paintings of a mother pelican piercing her breast to feed her youngsters and an engraving of the pelican mother is featured on the first page in the original version of the King James Bible.

The ancient peoples of Peru believed the pelican to be a great Protector of their children. In fact, to this day a place considered safe for children to cross the street is still referred to as a “pelican crossing.”

The Egyptians were convinced the pelican was the guide of the departed to the Underworld and mistreatment of the pelican was said to result in a person being stuck between the world of the living and the world of the dead indefinitely, an early foreshadowing of Christian Purgatory.

Elizabeth I of England was so taken with the idea of female self-sacrifice, she had the symbol of a pelican embroidered into the bodice of her gowns, and proclaimed herself the one true Mother of the Church of England. Many English knights featured the pelican on their coat of arms as a show of solidarity to the Queen.

Contrary to popular belief, pelicans do not go blind from diving for fish. Pelicans have nicitating lids protecting their eyes. This second set of eyelids is made of a clear membrane that allows them to see while diving and protects the eyes from pressure, water and debris. This so-called “second sight” resulted in fishermen revering the pelican for centuries, despite their tendency to mooch bait fish. Fishermen, to this day, watch the pelican’s behavior closely to tell if storms are coming. There are still fishermen in Florida who say: “When the pelicans clear out, a storm is about.”

Pelicans use their keen eyesight to hunt for small fish. They are not accustomed to swallowing larger-sized fish and can, in fact, choke to death. Sadly, there are many fatalities that result when fishermen feed pelicans filleted fish carcasses. The pelicans may eagerly devour these carcasses at filleting stations, but the bones become lodged in the birds’ throats and they die a slow and agonizing death of starvation over several days or weeks because they cannot get any more food down into their stomachs. If this is a problem in your area, ask the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission for a PVC carcass shute for your dock.

Current statistics show that 80 percent of all pelicans in Florida will at some point become entrapped in monofilament fishing line discarded in the water by fishermen. Fishing line entanglement causes strangulation, lacerations, systemic infections and amputation of legs and wings. Disposing of spent fishing line properly, out of the water, will save the lives of many, many pelicans.

Copyright 2014

A Big Thank You!

As we embark upon another season of bird rescue and rehabilitation, I wanted to make sure I said thank you to all of the volunteers who made 2012 a big success.

We took in and treated a whopping 178 birds in 2012. Among some of the unusual birds was a juvenile hummingbird with an eye injury from a cat, and a Bald Eagle felled by a systemic infection due to an old injury that apparently never quite healed.

As we grow ever closer to 200 birds a year (gulp!) we have made every effort to expand our physical facilities to accommodate the influx of winged patients. Volunteers built and installed a new indoor raptor enclosure, and several new pools were installed for injured aquatic birds, like loons.

As all of you know, there is no way I could possibly do this work alone. I am so grateful for your continued support, and look forward to a great 2013!

Catherine Greenleaf,
St. Francis Wild Bird Hospital