She sits in medallions of stained glass, sculpted emblems, and in paintings where she is often perched on the cross of the crucifixion. Standing in her nest she appears to tear her own breast, the drops of blood falling into the mouths of her young whom she saves or revives through her sacrifice.
The image is found in Pliny, in Isadore of Seville, and in the medieval bestiaries. All of these sources observed nature carefully but they also repeated stories they had heard, often quite (to us) fantastic, about the nature of the creatures. All grant to the creatures deeper meaning, lessons that they were thought to embody about God’s ordering of creation.
Morally the pelican exemplified the virtue of self-sacrifice. Allegorically, she showed that as she gave of herself to save her young, so Christ gave of himself to save all of us. But the highest meaning is transcendence, becoming something more than the desperate conditions of the act. She is called the Pelican in Her Piety.
Pelicans are social birds, often flying together. White pelicans drive schools of fish to shallow water where they scoop them up. Brown Pelicans plunge-dive from the air. Contrary to images and cartoons, they do not store fish in their beaks. They catch the fish, tilt their heads to drain away the water and then swallow their catch.
Both genders incubate the eggs, on or under their feet and, if undisturbed, have high breeding success. The young gather together in pods or crèches, among which the parents can pick out their own young to feed.
They preen constantly to waterproof their plumage.
In the 1950s and 60s the brown pelican came very close to extinction, a victim of the pesticide DDT. A ban on DDT and careful management that included reintroducing the birds into Louisiana revived the population. In November of last year they were removed from the endangered species list. On November 11, 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, “At a time when so many species of wildlife are threatened, we once in a while have an opportunity to celebrate an amazing success story … Today is such a day. The brown pelican is back.”
“You will remember a bird completely covered in oil,” Mr. Paquin [Deputy Director of Photography for the Associated Press] said. “In the eyes, you can see there’s something wrong. And you can study it. The eyes always tell a story.”
Putting A Face on the Gulf Oil Leak, Lens, New York Times, June 4, 2010
“Here’s what’s really sad,” [Louisiana Governor Bobby] Jindal said. “For every one of those mother adult pelicans you’re saving, there are many more back there that you can’t get to. And for every mother pelican you’re saving, there may be a nest, there may be eggs that can’t be saved.
“And that’s the tragedy in this: That for every animal we see, what’s this oil doing to their young? What’s this oil doing to their life cycles?”
Look at those pictures – harrowing, grotesque, courageous photography. Look, as you would gaze at an icon, seeking its meaning. Look at No. 2 – the Pelican in Her Piety.