February 19, 2014: One White Pelican

~ by Mary Galvano

Every year about this time our family has a visitor on the lake behind our home. Along with the many birds and wildlife that take refuge on and around the lake we get the gift of one white pelican, sometimes two. This year it is only one. And he is a beautiful thing to see sitting calmly on the water while the other birds fly around like busy bodies. He reminds me of the wise grandfather amongst his playful grandchildren. But, what is this one white pelican doing here? And where did he come from?

This pelican called the American White Pelican rivals the Trumpeter Swan as the longest bird native to North America. Unlike the Brown Pelican, the American White Pelican does not dive for its food. Instead it catches its prey while swimming. Each bird eats more than 4 pounds of food a day, mostly fish. Other animals eaten by these birds are crayfish and amphibians. Birds nesting on saline lakes, where food is scarce, will travel great distances to better feeding grounds. They nest in colonies of several hundred pairs on islands in remote brackish and freshwater lakes of inland North America. The American White Pelican breeds in interior North America in place such as the northern Great Plains and the West mountains, moving south and to the coasts, as far as Central America and South America, in winter. Although it winters along the coasts, it only breeds inland. This is one of the reasons there is only one or two on our lake in Jacksonville, Florida, because they are colonial breeders, with up to 5,000 pairs per site. The birds arrive on the breeding grounds in March or April; nesting starts between early April and early June. They do not breed in the south and along the coast.

Habitat loss is the largest known cause of nesting failure, with flooding and drought being recurrent problems. Human-related losses include entanglement in fishing gear, boating disturbance and poaching as well as additional habitat degradation.

There was a pronounced decline in American White Pelican numbers in the mid-20th century, attributable to the excessive spraying of DDT, endrin and other organo-chlorides in agriculture as well as widespread draining and pollution of wetlands. But, populations have recovered well after stricter environmental protection laws came into effect, and are stable or slightly increasing today. By the 1980s, more than 100,000 adult American White Pelicans were estimated to exist in the wild, with 33,000 nests altogether in the 50 colonies in Canada, and 18,500 nests in the 14–17 United States colonies. Shoreline erosion at breeding colonies remains a problem in some cases, as are the occasional mass poisonings when pesticides are used near breeding or wintering sites.

The Meaning of the Pelican as a Catholic Christian Symbol:
Catholic Christian symbolism in art provides a clear graphic illustration, which represents people or items of religious significance. What is the meaning of the Pelican? The Pelican Christian Symbol represents atonement and charity. ‘Pelican in her piety’ in heraldry and symbolical art, is a representation of a pelican in the act of wounding her breast in order to nourish her young with her blood a practice fabulously attributed to the bird. The pelican cutting open its own breast represents Christ’s death on the cross, and the shedding of His blood to revive us and therefore adopted as a symbol of the Redeemer and of charity. An explanation of this is that the pelican’s bill has a crimson red tip and the contrast of this red tip against the white breast probably gave rise to the tradition that the bird tore her own breast to feed her young with her blood. The Pelican is mentioned in the Bible and unlike many early Christian symbols, is almost exclusively a Christian icon.

So there we have it, this bird has more to it than meets the eye. It not only has great significance in North America it also has a deep meaning for Christians. God does indeed have a purpose for every living being and we have an obligation to help defend this purpose.


Mary Galvano-Bajohr is a singer/songwriter, LPGA golf instructor, speaker and author. On the golf course she is a dedicated professional, but go to a Yankee game, a Pro-life event or other venue and you just might see her step up to the microphone and sing the National Anthem or the Ave Maria.

Visit Mary’s website at www.marygalvano.com.

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