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common name for a large, gregarious aquatic bird of warm regions, allied to the cormorants and gannets. Pelicans are heavy-bodied, long-necked birds with large, flat bills. They are graceful swimmers and fliers, often seen flying in long lines or circling at great heights. Fish are stored in a deep, expansible pouch below the lower mandible; the young feed from the pouch and throat. The white pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, of North America ranges from the NW United States to the Gulf and Florida coasts. It is about 5 ft (152.5 cm) long with a wingspread of 8 to 10 ft (244–300.5 cm). Both sexes have white plumage with black primary wing feathers. The white pelican scoops fish into its pouch as it swims; the smaller brown pelican, P. occidentalis, dives from the air for its prey. The eastern brown pelican of the SE United States and tropical America and the California brown pelican are strictly ocean birds. The spectacled pelican is found in Australia and New Guinea. There are several Old World species. Pelicans are classified in the phylum ChordataChordata
, phylum of animals having a notochord, or dorsal stiffening rod, as the chief internal skeletal support at some stage of their development. Most chordates are vertebrates (animals with backbones), but the phylum also includes some small marine invertebrate animals.
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, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Pelecaniformes, family Pelecanidae.
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The Pelican in Her Piety

In the days before biology was well understood people often spun imaginative tales to explain the behavior or appearance of various animals. These folktales often interpreted what was unknown in terms of familiar cultural and religious beliefs. In this way the natural world became an extension of the human world, full of symbols that reminded people of their own way of life and the things they held sacred.

The pelican became a symbol of Christ because the way in which it feeds its young reminded people of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. The pelican scoops fish out of the sea and holds them in a pouch of skin hanging beneath its lower beak. It feeds its young by opening its beak and permitting them to grab bits of the bloody mass of fish collected there. This method contrasts with the way in which most adult birds feed their young, which is by placing bits of food in the youngsters' open beaks. Tellers of traditional tales connected the image of the baby birds feeding on what appeared to be their mother's flesh and blood to the story of Christ's death.

A Folktale and a Christian Symbol

An old, well-known European folktale explained that while pruning their own feathers pelicans purposely draw blood into their beaks in order to feed their offspring with this life-giving fluid. The legend concluded by noting that this self-sacrificing behavior leaves behind a permanent red mark on the bird's beak. Indeed, one species of pelican has a reddish beak tip, a fact which may have inspired the folktale.

This story portrays the pelican as a symbol of Jesus Christ in his role as redeemer (see also Redemption). Just as the pelican nourishes its children with its own blood, so, too, did Jesus sacrifice his own life for the benefit of his followers. Christians commemorate this event, the death of Jesus by crucifixion, on Good Friday (for more on crucifixion, see also Cross). Just as Christ was crucified by the people whom he hoped to serve, baby pelicans appear to rip at the flesh of their own mother. At the Last Supper, which took place on the night before his execution, Jesus spoke in veiled terms of his approaching death. He asked his followers to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of his body and blood which he would soon offer for their sakes (see also Eucharist; Maundy Thursday). Thus blood became an important symbol of Jesus' sacrifice. By pondering the mystery of the pelican's apparently bloody beak in light of Christian blood symbolism, storytellers turned the humble sea bird into a symbol of Christ.

The Pelican in Art and Literature

Christians have seen the pelican as a symbol of Christ the redeemer ever since the time of St. Augustine (354-430). By the late Middle Ages the bird had also come to represent the Eucharist. This symbolism was so widely acknowledged in past eras that artists and writers made frequent reference to it. The Italian writer, Dante (1265-1321), referred to Jesus as "our pelican." Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a medieval saint and philosopher, called Jesus "our pelican of piety" in one of his poems. In his famous play Hamlet, English writer William Shakespeare (1564-1616) penned these lines for the moody prince:

To his good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms, And, like the kind, life-rend'ring pelican, Refresh them with my blood. (Hulme, 188)

Pelicans can also be found in many church decorations and other works of religious art. In Christian art the image of the pelican feeding its brood on its own blood is often referred to as "the pelican in her piety."

Other Versions of the Folktale

According to Christian belief, Jesus'death and resurrection have not only offered humanity a new, more spiritual way of life, but have also opened the door to a blissful afterlife (see also Resurrection; Salvation). Several alternate versions of the pelican tale reflect this doctrine. One proclaimed that the bird could revive its dead offspring by feeding them with its own blood. Yet another version of the pelican legend asserted that the mother pelican fed her offspring on her own blood in times of famine, dying so that they could live (see also Redemption). Both of these tales again recall the sacrifice of Jesus and its life-bestowing consequences.

Further Reading

Heath, Sidney. The Romance of Symbolism. 1909. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1976. Hulme, F. Edward. The History, Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Chris- tian Art. 1891. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1969. Ingersoll, Ernest. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1968. Møller-Christensen, V., and K. E. Jordt Jørgensen. Encyclopedia of Bible Crea- tures. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1965. Webber, F. R. Church Symbolism. 1938. Second edition, revised. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1992.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002


(vertebrate zoology)
Any of several species of birds composing the family Pelecanidae, distinguished by the extremely large bill which has a distensible pouch under the lower mandible.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


tears open breast to feed young. [Christian Symbolism: de Bles, 29]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


any aquatic bird of the tropical and warm water family Pelecanidae, such as P. onocrotalus (white pelican): order Pelecaniformes. They have a long straight flattened bill, with a distensible pouch for engulfing fish
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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