Pelicans are large iconic water birds with long boat shaped beaks and throat pouches that are ideal to swoop up fish and filter water. There are eight different species of pelicans in the Pelicanidae genus; and they generally travel and breed in large noisy flocks and colonies. In their costal habitats, pelicans are becoming increasingly vulnerable to climate change and human activity, and images of oil soaked pelicans have brought much needed attention to environmental degradation and climate injustice.
Historically, pelicans were used to symbolize Jesus Christ and his crucifixion. According to ancient legend, during times of famine, a mother pelican would stab herself, piercing her breast with her large beak in order to feed her young with her own blood. The mother pelican even died in some legend; committing the ultimate sacrifice by willingly giving up her life for her young. In other legend, she was resurrected, a legendary symbol of Christ, who willingly sacrificed Himself on the cross to give eternal life. Catholics believe that the resurrected Christ continues to feed the faithful and nourish his flock with His body and blood through the Holy Eucharist; much like the resurrected mother pelican who fed her young with her own flesh and blood.
It is said that the legend was caused by misunderstanding, since the tip of some Pelican beaks turn red during their mating season, and since pelicans rest with their beaks tucked into their chest, seeming to stab themselves. Yet, the pelican is also associated with other ancient legend and mythology. In ancient Egypt, pelicans were associated with death and the afterlife, and were depicted in hieroglyphics and art on the walls of tombs. Evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians believed that Pelicans prophesied safe passage in the underworld. Even Dante Alighieri in his “Divine Comedy” about travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, referred to Christ as “our Pelican”.
Likewise, St. Thomas Aquinas likened Christ to the pelican in his poem, “Adoro te devote”:
Bring the tender tale true of the pelican;
Bathe me, Jesus Lord, in what Thy bosum ran–
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.
Queen Elizabeth 1 of England, also known as the virgin mother of the English church, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, was depicted in several state portraits wearing a pendant of the pelican mother piercing her breast to feed her young. This was symbolic of the monarch’s selfless love, sacrifice, and motherly commitment for her subjects. Even today, the Pelican remains a poignant symbol that many religious and charitable organizations incorporate in their official seals.
Today, we see images of pelicans as environmental martyrs. According to the Audubon Society, more than a million birds died during BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, 2010. Speaking about Louisiana’s Cat Island, a large pelican rookery in the Gulf of Mexico, National Audubon Society Vice President Doug Meffert said “The island pelicans were literally choking in oil.” It has been reported that Cat Island pelicans have stopped reproducing, and have not bred there since 2010.
When pelicans do breed, pollutants inside the eggs could be a big problem. Research has found evidence of petroleum compounds and the chemical used to clean up the oil in the eggs of pelicans nesting in Minnesota. According to Mark Clark, an ecologist who studies pelican eggs: “Any contaminant that makes its way into the bird could be bad, but it could be especially bad if it gets into the egg because that’s where the developing embryo and chick starts … and when things go wrong at that stage – there’s usually no recovery.”
This past Lent, when the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM) organized its first Lenten Fast for Climate Justice; the pelican imagery resurfaced as symbol of climate injustice.
For the 40 days of Lent, Catholics worldwide observed the Lenten Fast in solidarity with those affected the most by climate change. Climate injustice burdens the poor, and those humans, animals, and birds who live along coastal communities. GCCM, along with over two thousand participants from 56 countries, by observing the Lenten Fast for Climate Justice demand decisive action for a fair, ambitious, and legally binding global agreement to combat climate change at the upcoming COP 21 in Paris in December of this year.
Now, as Catholics anticipate the climate summit to be hosted at the Vatican on April 28th; there is hope that the gathering will build to the growing momentum for successful climate negotiations in Paris.