Bird Totems of Venice: The Pelican

By Krista Schwimmer

What a marvel it is, indeed, to witness the effortless glide of the American White Pelican, coasting along Venice, even turning at times to soar with prehistoric presence over Ocean Front Walk itself. Or, say, to witness the plunging, precise dive of the Brown Pelican, falling from as high as 70 feet above the Pacific, to land its fish supper of the day. Since the first time I saw one of these birds when I arrived in Venice seventeen years ago, the pelican has never ceased to surprise and amaze me.

Although the United States is home to just these two pelican species, there are actually eight living species today. Four are white-plumaged that nest on the ground; four are either brown or grey plumaged that nest largely in trees. Pelicanus erythrorhynchos, or the American White Pelican, and Pelicanus occidentalis, or the Brown Pelican, are seen here in Venice, California: the first, as a visitor, the second, as a resident.

The White Pelican is the largest of the two, with its white and black tipped wings measuring up to 114.2 inches. This species likes shallow lakes and coastal lagoons, does not dive for food like its cousin the Brown Pelican, and is highly sensitive to human disturbances in its breeding colonies. A visitor here primarily in the winter months, the White Pelican is known for its graceful, soaring flights.

The Brown Pelican differs from the White Pelican in a number of ways. Two distinct ways are both visual: through its brown plumage and its method of fishing. In his book, “The Bestiary of Christ,” Louis Charbonneau-Lassay says the word pelican comes from the Greek pelekus, or ax, “because the opening of its enormous beak, widening out in the shape of a fan, recalls the ancient axe head when the bird drops from the sky onto the fish swimming near the water’s surface, on which it chiefly feeds.”

It wasn’t long ago that the Brown Pelican was almost driven to extinction by by the insecticide dichlorodiphenyotrichlorethane or DDT. In the late 1960’s, Rimmon C. Fay, Ph.D., an activist, scientist, and lifeguard who became renown for his vigilance over the California coastline, gave data for a lawsuit against Montrose Chemical, the maker of DDT, that stopped them from dumping DDT into the sewers and thus, the ocean itself. Dr. Fay also filed the paperwork to have the Brown Pelican declared an endangered species at the time. In 2009, it was taken off the list when the West Coast population reached 150,000.

With fossil evidence reaching back 30 million years, it is not surprising to find the pelican represented in Egyptian lore. As Henet, the pelican is associated with death and the afterlife. The pelican was believed to be able to possess the ability to prophesy the safe passage in the underworld for a person who had died. The Egyptians also view the pelican as a protector against snakes.

In Christian symbolism the pelican is associated with purification, redemption and resurrection. One legend is that the father pelican pierces his own right breast after finding his chicks lifeless in the nest. His blood brings the chicks back to life. Another version of this legend appears in the 18th degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, the Rose Croix degree. The main symbol of the jewel for this Masonic degree depicts a mother pelican pecking her breast to feed her babies. In this legend, it is the father pelican who kills the young in a rage when they misbehave. The mother, then, brings the chicks back to life, symbolizing, of course, the resurrection.

As a bird totem, then, pelican points to unselfishness. Because of its buoyancy, created by the air sacs under its skin, the pelican also teaches how to rise above one’s emotions and life’s trials. Simply observing a flock of pelicans flying in V formation above Ocean Front Walk certainly lifts my spirits.

One afternoon, my husband and I were walking along the Venice canals when we spotted a lone pelican resting at the end of a canoe. We watched as the pelican then began to do what looked like a kind of yogic breathing technique. He first pulled his head completely back, opening his large bill and revealing his tongue. Then, he stuck the bill straight up in the air. We watched in amazement as he slowly completed what appeared to be a yawn.

Whether it is the White Pelican, Brown Pelican, or any other pelican species, like many other creatures, this stately being still needs protection. Oil spills, fishing lines, and destruction of habitat still threaten the pelican. In fact, the most recent survey by UC Davis showed a drastic plunge in the population of the Brown Pelican’s breeding pairs. As for the White Pelican, the Audubon website states that “because of pesticides, human disturbances, and the draining of wetlands, the species is in decline. The number of active colonies has dropped sharply in recent decades.”

Luckily, we need only look to the pelicans to teach us just how to protect them. We need only learn to cherish charity over commerce. Although this may seem a daunting task at times, charity begins with a simple act of kindness: buying a meal for a houseless Venice resident, taking the time to rescue a neighborhood bird, or even simply getting to know your neighbors. Each of these acts has a ripple effect, both inwardly and outwardly. Practiced on a daily basis, charity can change us and the world around us.

So, next time you see a pelican soaring or diving, next time you find one of its feathers along the coast, remember the teachings of pelican. And don’t forget to yawn now and then! That, too, can wake you up.

(Sources: “The Bestiary of Christ”, Louis Charbonneau-Lassay; “Animal Speak,” Ted Andrews;;; wikipedia; “Hero of the Coast – Don May on Rim Fay.”;


Above: Pelican over Venice

Photo: Joe Stanford

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