PELICAN (Fr. Pélican; Lat. Pelecanus or Pelicanus), a large fish-eating water-fowl, remarkable for the enormous pouch formed by the extensible skin between the lower jaws of its long, and apparently formidable but in reality very weak, bill. The ordinary pelican, the Onocrotalus of the ancients, to whom it was well known, and the Pelecanus onocrotalus of ornithologists, is a very abundant bird in some districts of south-eastern Europe, south-western Asia and north-eastern Africa, occasionally straying, it is believed, into the northern parts of Germany and France; but the possibility of such wanderers having escaped from confinement is always to be regarded, since few zoological gardens are without examples. Its usual haunts are the shallow margins of the larger lakes and rivers, where fishes are plentiful, since it requires for its sustenance a vast supply of them. The nest is formed among reeds, placed on the ground and lined with grass. Therein two eggs, with white, chalky shells, are commonly laid. The young during the first twelvemonth are of a greyish-brown, but when mature almost the whole plumage, except the black primaries, is white, deeply suffused by a rich blush of rose or salmon-colour, passing into yellow on the crest and lower part of the neck in front. A second and somewhat larger species, Pelecanus crispus, also inhabits Europe, but has a more eastern distribution. This, when adult, is readily distinguishable from the ordinary bird by the absence of the blush from its plumage, and by the curled feathers that project from and overhang each side of the head, which with some difference of coloration of the bill, pouch, bare skin round the eyes and irides give it a wholly distinct expression. Two specimens of the humerus have been found in the English fens (Ibis, 1868, p. 363; Proc. Zool. Society, 1871, p. 702), thus proving the existence of the bird in England at no very distant period, and one of them being that of a young example points to its having been bred in this country. It is possible from their large size that they belonged to P. crispus. Ornithologists have been much divided in opinion as to the number of living species of the genus Peleranus (cf. op. cit., 1868, p. 264; 1869, p. 571; 1871, p. 631)—the estimate varying from six to ten or eleven, but the former is the number recognized by M. Dubois (Bull. Mus. de Belgique, 1883). North America has one, P. erythrorhynchus, very similar to P. onocrotalus both in appearance and habits, but remarkable for a triangular, horny excrescence developed on the ridge of the male’s bill in the breeding season, which falls off without leaving trace of its existence when that is over. Australia has P. conspicillatus, easily distinguished by its black tail and wing-coverts Of more marine habit are P. philippensis and P. fuscus, the former having a wide range in Southern Asia, and, it is said, reaching Madagascar, and the latter common on the coasts of the warmer parts of both North and South America.
The genus Pelecanus as instituted by Linnaeus included the cormorant (q.v.) and gannet (q.v.) as well as the true pelicans, and for a long while these and some other distinct groups, as the snake-birds (q.v.), frigate-birds (q.v.) and tropic-birds (q.v.), which have all the four toes of the foot connected by a web, were regarded as forming a single family, Pelecanidae, but this name has now been restricted to the pelicans only, though all are still usually associated in the suborder Steganopodes of Ciconiiform birds. It may be necessary to state that there is no foundation for the venerable legend of the pelican feeding her young with blood from her own breast, which has given it an important place in ecclesiastical heraldry, except that, as A. D. Bartlett suggested (Proc. Zool. Society, 1869, p. 146), the curious bloody secretion ejected from the mouth of the flamingo may have given rise to the belief, through that bird having been mistaken for the “Pelican of the wilderness.” (A. N.)
- This caution was not neglected by the prudent, even so long ago as Sir Thomas Browne’s days, for he, recording the occurrence of a pelican in Norfolk, was careful to notice that about the same time one of the pelicans kept by the king (Charles II.) in St James’s Park, had been lost.
- The legend was commonly believed in the middle ages. Epiphanius, bishop of Constantia, in his Physiologus (1588), writes that the female bird, in cherishing her young, wounds them with loving, and pierces their sides, and they die. After three days the male pelican comes and finds them dead, and his heart is pained. He smites his own side, and as he stands over the wounds of the dead young ones the blood trickles down, and thus are they made alive again The pelican “in his piety”—i.e. in this pious act of reviving his offspring—was a common subject for 15th century emblem books; it became a symbol of self-sacrifice, a type of Christian redemption and of the Eucharistic doctrine. The device was adopted by Bishop Fox in 1516 for his new college of Corpus Christi, Oxford.—[H. Ch.]