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13 october 2019

The first college course I ever taught, 38 years ago, was "Shakespeare." I was responsible for explicating plays like King Lear to unenthralled freshmen. "'Twas this flesh begot / Those Pelicane Daughters," the king exclaims at one point. I sort of knew what the reference meant, but it was going to be complicated to explain. And then I looked outside into the courtyard beyond our classroom window, and caught sight of an emblematic sculpture of a pelican baring its wounded breast while pelican chicks lapped blood from it. "It's like that," I resourcefully pointed. My teaching career had nowhere to go but downhill after that.

The emblem of the pelican feeding its young on breast blood forms a major section of Barbara Allen's recent book Pelican, for the Reaktion Animal series. It's the one legend everyone knows about pelicans, and is at once zoologically absurd, emotionally powerful, and figuratively complicated.

Of course pelicans don't feed their young their own blood. Why the hell would they? But pelican parenting is a bit rough-and-tumble, and from a distance, Allen grants, it might look something like a bloodbath. If a pelican (sometimes a mother in the legends, sometimes a father) did feed its young on blood, it would seem a great act of selfless charity, and is usually so interpreted. The pelican thus becomes a type of Christ, and a role model for earthly authorities.

But one version of the legend has the adult first murdering its young, and then reviving them with its blood. This is even less explicable. But there's little that typology can't reconcile. God did chastise us with numerous curses before relenting and sending a Redeemer, so maybe the killing-reviving sequence makes sense in Christian logic.

Yet another scenario has the young pelicans mobbing the parent and pecking away to get at its lifeblood. This is the version King Lear had in mind. The parent is still the suffering type, but has become a complainer, not a patient dispenser of charity. It's a bitter dynamic no matter how you look at it. At best, the parent is a passive-aggressive victim; at worst, it's a pan-gender Oedipal struggle of all against all.

And of course, again, has nothing to do with pelicans themselves. The heaviest flying seabird, a pelican, says Allen, is a marvel of engineering. No human engineer would set out to design something that looks and functions like a pelican – which is exactly why human engineers often learn so much from studying the birds. They are keen fishermen, superb long-distance fliers, and resourceful adapters to various landscapes along their migration paths: another of the animal genera that inspires the well-worn phrase "all continents except Antarctica."

Humans don't hunt pelicans much (they taste bad), and with DDT banned, the most direct human threat comes from aquaculturists who see pelicans (like ospreys) as competitors. Pelican nesting areas are encroached on by development, but the greatest conservation danger, Allen reports, comes when fish stocks crash. Pelicans have been decimated by the same sardine crashes that have wiped out human fisheries. Except unlike humans, pelicans can't just move inland and subsist on something else. Overfishing (and other causes) thus don't just hurt human industries, but the livelihoods of other predators.

I often add a few poems to those adduced by Reaktion authors, but in Pelican, Allen found every poem I could and many I didn't know about. Hers is a literate study with many artistic gems and ethological curiosities, one of the best additions to the Reaktion lineup of animal books.

Allen, Barbara. Pelican. London: Reaktion, 2019.