Brown Pelican

Follow the Leader

I spent a half hour observing brown pelicans flying north (always north) along the central coast of California from a vantage point in Cayucos. My husband pointed out the synchronicity in the way the birds flew. First the leader would flap, flap and then glide. Then the second, one beat behind, would switch from flapping to gliding. Then the third would switch. We wondered where they were going, whether the leader is always the same bird, and what type of air pattern prompted them to switch from "flap" to "glide."

Brown pelicans are a threatened species. DDT that entered ocean water through runoff from fields became concentrated in fish. Through a diet of fish, pelicans passed the DDT along to their eggs. The shells became fragile from the contamination and broke before the chicks had a chance to live.

A Rocky Coast Bird

Look for brown pelicans along rocky coasts in California. They enjoy resting on small rocky islands a bit off shore, securely separated from land predators. We have also seen many (predictably) near fishing piers.


In the Middle Ages, people in Europe were united in the way they interpreted the symbol of the pelican. For them, it was such a strong symbol of redemption that artists depicted pelicans above the cross. When I see pelicans flying in a line over the Pacific Ocean, I have the freedom to draw my own conclusions about what they mean to me, but the price of this is that I have no shared stories to draw from in a world that is increasingly devoid of myth.

On my quest to understand what pelicans have meant to at least some people over time, I first found snippets of a story (without clear references) that pelicans are symbols of sacrifice because, according to folklore, they tear at their chests to feed their young.

Then, as I continued my research, I learned about bestiaries written in the Middle Ages that mix fanciful tales and natural observations (with equal emphasis) to teach moral lessons based on the qualities of animals, plants, and even stones.

In the Aberdeen Bestiary, written around 1200 in England, I read a parable that when pelicans tap the beaks of their parents, the parents strike back, killing the young. After 3 days, the mother pelican lays on her side and spills blood onto the young. They revive and are redeemed.

The Bestiary also comments on the hermetic, lonely qualities of the pelican (so in contrast to my viewing of them flying in a line over the ocean). The Bestiary observed that pelicans are often thin and eat only what they need. For more information, visit the following wondeful website that displays the Aberdeen Bestiary.

Last modified 9/8/02 by Sherry Weaver Smith.