Do you know Roald Dahl’s book The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me? It begins with a little boy, Billy, gazing at a run-down building which used to be a sweet shop. While he’s gazing, a window on the top floor opens and a giraffe sticks his head out. Then a second window opens and, “of all the crazy things”, a giant white bird appears.
Billy recognizes the bird immediately because of its “amazing beak” like a “huge orange-coloured basin”.
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me is a fine book, but it would be finer had Dahl paused his story at this moment to explain why the pelican’s beak is so amazing.
It does not always look so capacious. For example:
American white pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Beneath the rigid part of the beak is a flexible throat pouch, which expands to give the basin-like effect of which Billy is so enamored. The American White Pelican can hold up to three gallons of water by expanding the pouch in this way. This is useful for catching fish: the pelican takes in as much water as it can, plus the fish that happened to be swimming in that water, and lets it drain out very slowly until only the fish remain in its beak. Then it swallows them whole.
Billy’s pelican hops on to the windowsill, opens its mouth and begins to sing.
Oh, how I wish
For a big fat fish!
I’m as hungry as ever could be!
A dish of fish is my only wish!
How far are we from the sea?
Pelicans are water birds, and inhabit the coastal and inland waters of all continents except Antarctica. The eight species can be divided into two groups: four white and four grey or brown. The biggest is the Dalmatian pelican, which weighs an average of 25lb. This gives it the distinction of being the heaviest flying bird. All pelican species have the throat pouch, and all are recognizably pelican.
Brown-feathered Peruvian pelican, pelecanus thagus
We never find out the species of Billy’s pelican, who simply goes by the name of Pelly. He flies down to the street, opens wide his beak and invites Billy to hop in. “I will not hop in,” says Billy, “unless you swear on your honour you won’t shut it once I’m inside. I don’t like small dark places.”
Claustrophobia or no claustrophobia, he is right to be wary. I don’t know if a pelican has ever eaten a small boy, but they certainly do not restrict themselves to fish. I became aware of this in 2006, when British newspapers carried reports of a pelican swallowing a pigeon in St. James’s Park, London. How exactly the pigeon ended up in the pelican’s beak was not specified, but passers-by were clear that it took 20 minutes for the battle to reach its conclusion. “[The pelican] managed to get the pigeon to go head first down its throat,” said one. “It was kicking and flapping the whole way down.”
Several similar incidents have taken place since, and most of them seem to have been caught on camera. Pelican v. pigeon shows off the pelican’s pouch to magnificent effect, but it is not for the faint of heart:
Billy’s Pelly is a gentler bird. He has a window-cleaning business with the Giraffe and their friend the Monkey. “I am the ladder, the Pelly is the bucket and the Monkey is the cleaner,” the Giraffe explains. When the Duke of Hampshire, the richest man in the country, asks them to wash the six hundred and seventy-seven windows of his enormous house, Billy accompanies the three animals as their Business Manager.
They barely have time to start cleaning when the Giraffe spots a burglar in the Duchess’s room, trying to steal her jewels. Pelly flies in through the window and traps the burglar in his beak, holding him there until the police arrive. His bravery comes at a price: the burglar has a gun, and shoots a hole through his beak.
The pelican’s sacrificial impulse has a long precedent. In medieval Europe, the female pelican was believed to be particularly devoted to her young – so much so that she would peck at her own breast to feed them with her blood. As a result, the bird came to symbolize the crucifixion, and Jesus sacrificing himself for the world. Many medieval manuscripts show blood dropping from a mother pelican’s chest, and her hungry babies lapping it up.
Pelican in a bestiary belonging to Anne Walsh, early 1400s
Real pelican chicks
Fortunately, Pelly is not called upon to give his life in the service of the Duchess’s jewels. The Duke’s chauffeur performs some emergency surgery on his beak, and the Duke is so grateful to Pelly that he invites him, the Giraffe and the Monkey to live happily ever after in his spectacular house.
Earlier this year, another pelican survived some surgery. At the beginning of 2013, the New Orleans Hornets announced they would be renaming themselves the New Orleans Pelicans. Several months later, they unveiled their new mascot, Pierre the Pelican:
Pierre did not go down well. One sports writer summarized the fans’ response as: “What the fuck is this thing?… What person or persons designed this foul beast, and why aren’t they locked up?” Before long, the Pelicans put out a statement saying that Pierre had injured his beak playing basketball and was undergoing reconstructive surgery. Post-surgery, he looked rather different.
Less scary, but not much more like a pelican.
Hannah Rosefield likes writing about books and birds. She lives in London and tweets.