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A Christmas Miracle: White Pelicans Return to Elk River

Posted: Dec 17, 2009

White Pelicans are a rarity on Elk River. I had never seen one north of Gulf Shores, but on Christmas morning of 2007,  a friend down the river called to say that a dozen White Pelicans were winging our way in the midst of a flock of cormorants. I had despaired of ever sighting pelicans on Elk River, but suddenly, there they were—resplendent in all their pristine glory, like outlandish angels flying in formation. Last Christmas I did not see them, but this morning, December 17, over one hundred arrived at our end of the river-- this time sans fellow cormorants. (photo courtesy of Billy Hall of Elk River)

The pelican is a cousin of the cormorant, belonging to the order Pelecaniformes. My first memory of pelicans is from my childhood. On our family vacations in Florida, I would watch the Brown Pelicans perched on pilings near the Gulf of Mexico, eyes fixed on the water, preparing to fill their capacious beaks with fish. My mother would recite a little rhyme to my sister and me that began with the lines “A very strange bird is the pelican. Its beak can hold more than its belly can.”

Not only can the pelican hold more in his beak than he can hold in his belly, but also the American White Pelican has yet another distinction: his wing span of nine feet is the longest of any bird in Alabama, including the Great Blue Heron. His wing span rivals that of the infamous albatross.

More than just a strange and peculiar bird, the pelican has achieved mythic status. Because the pelican was thought to rend its own breast in order to feed its young when food was scarce, the pelican became a symbol for Christ and the Atonement. In the middle ages, images of the pelican wounding itself were recurrent motifs in Christian iconography. One can still see an ornament of the Pelican on the Christmon Tree in many churches.

My earliest experience with the symbolic meaning of the pelican occurred many years ago when I was a student at Athens College (now Athens State University).. My first encounter was an oblique reference in Shakespeare's Hamlet (act iv): “To his good friend thus wide I'll ope my arms/And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican, / Repast them with my blood.”

Later that same year in my French class I read a poem by Alfred de Musset entitled Nuits . In the section Nuits de Mai (Nights of May), the Poet and the Muse engage in a dialogue. The Muse employs the image of the pelican sacrificing himself for his offspring (feeding them from his own blood) as a symbol of the poet.

The Muse concludes her speech with these lines: “Poet, it is thus that great poets are made./ They leave those who live once to make themselves happy /But the generous dishes served at their feasts/ Are in the main like those of the pelicans./ When they speak thus of false hopes/ Of sadness and oblivion, love and misfortune/ This isn't a reason to speed the heart/ Their speeches are like sword-blades/ They trace dazzling circles in the air/ But there always hang some drips of blood.” (I apologize for the translation. It falls far short of the original French.) 

This romantic view of the poet—that of a misunderstood outcast, isolated by his extreme sensitivity from the mainstream of humanity, suffering and in some cases sacrificing him/herself for art/truth—reached its apogee in the Bryonic hero of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (circa 1818).

As I am prone, like the romantic poets and the medieval symbolist, to read profound significance into the most casual event, I do not believe the pelicans arrived at Blue Springs by accident. I choose to believe that the White Pelicans appear to us at Christmas to remind us that the true gifts of Christmas are charity, altruism, and selfless love.

Blessings on you in the new year, and may you have joy, health, prosperity, and peace in 2010.

--Penne J. Laubenthal

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