The remarkable and very popular birds called pelicans (genus Pelecanus) are believed to be descended from an ancient bird family, though some evidence indicates that the genus may have originated from more than one ancestral line. Fossils dating from 30–40 million years ago are similar to modern pelicans and have been found in many parts of the world, on all continents except Antarctica. New scientific advances are still fueling debates about pelican taxonomy. Pelecanus consists of eight living species, and there is great variety among these birds in size, weight, diet, colors, plumage, behavior, and habitats. Pelicans are the only birds with a pouch, actually a three-layered skin bag, under the bill. The beak is probably these birds’ most significant feature, with the Australian pelican having the largest at 42–46 cm (a Guinness world record). If the question arises as to what fish a pelican eats, an appropriate answer would be “anything that fits the bill.” This is just one example of the pleasant wit that is scattered throughout this book.
In a major chapter, the author, a minister, writes a deep and brilliant analysis of the relationships of pelicans to religion and mythology. The Seri tribe on an island in the Gulf of California believed that the “Ancient of Pelican” created the world. A Wangkamura myth tells the story of a human who became a pelican so that he could travel more. South American communities used pelican skin to mummify human bodies as far back as 6300 BCE. The King James version of the Bible classifies pelicans twice as “unclean” birds, while other biblical versions assign this label to different species. Numerous worldwide legends and connections to religion – including poetry, music, art, alchemy, freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism – contribute to this amazing body of lore.
A sampling of the stories to be found in this book includes the following:
profound descriptions of pelican fishing techniques, involving high diving, stealing, scavenging, opportunism, and cooperative fishing
how the relationships between dinosaurs and birds are reflected in pelican features
the explanation of the “miracle of pelicans in flight”
the story of “Lanky,” once New Zealand’s only Australian pelican
the description of how John Audubon’s book Birds of America shows pictures he drew after exploring Florida swamps, finding, shooting, and skinning pelicans
how alcatraz, another name for pelican, provided the name of the island in San Francisco Bay
the Fijian creation tale that involved Ratu Tatanga’s gift to the pelican
how Theodore Roosevelt helped the brown pelican
the fact that pelican meat is tough and unpleasant to eat (“rank, fishy, and nauseous”), which saves pelicans from large-scale hunting
a description of exercises used by pelicans to maintain their pouches
complex courtship rituals including male competition, bill clapping, dancing, and, finally, mating
how the story of Panarian, written by a bishop 1600 years ago, uses pelican behavior as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.
the story of how the pelican took over the role of the stork in delivering babies
accounts of the difficult relationships between humans and pelicans due to land development, habitat destruction, pollution, hunting, cruelty, violence, and brutality
how pelicans helped in discussions involving the creation of U.S. National Parks
the use of 3D printing to create pelican bill reconstruction
In case the reader is unaware of the widespread presence of the pelican in world cultures, some of the places where they are found include coins, stamps, porcelain dishes, advertisements for many products, names of aircraft and ships, a publishing company (Pelican Books), a cancer treatment organization (the Pelican Cancer Foundation), fairy tales and children’s literature, cartoons, novels, movies, stage shows, the art of Cézanne, the literature of Shakespeare and Albert Schweitzer, names of geographic locations (Pelican Rapids, MN; Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge), and the state flag of Louisiana, the Pelican State.
This exhaustively researched volume is an easy and fun read, chock full of information, and appropriate for college, high school, and general readers. It would be a valuable addition to a classroom library. There is enough fascinating material in this book to create a full and exciting course on pelicans, perhaps Pelican 101. Profusely illustrated with captivating photographs, the book also includes a pelican time line, an appendix, extensive references, a bibliography, and an index. “What do you call a pessimistic pelican?” “A pelican’t.”