The Pelican

graphic pelican
The pelican is on the left. Note the doomed fish in his beak.

We were speaking of pelicans. Shari said they look like cartoon birds, and I had to agree. The brown pelican makes for an ungainly package. Laughable, actually. Especially when it’s earthbound. We watch them settle on the dock, just below our window. Pensive and impenetrable, sequin eyes staring, webbed feet neatly folded over the handrail’s edge.

The brown pelican is a charcoal sketch, maybe just a first draft. Someone’s idea of a concept bird, unlikely to ever fly. But wait…

Unfolding, it becomes a swift galleon sailing inches above the water. Elegant and still, propelled by an unfelt wind. Then, suddenly soaring at a height of twenty or thirty feet for a better view of lunch. The next instant, it folds up and plunges with the grace of a busted umbrella. A bucket of garbage dumped from a window. A jumble of feathery armatures in free fall. Then, a splash. Then, rising from the water, with a doomed struggling fish in its pouchy beak.

One day, we rode our bikes to the J.N. “Ding” Darling nature reserve and observed dozens of large and magnificent birds: snow-white egrets and ibises, great blue and little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, menacing ospreys, and mysterious anhingas. Even loons, on vacation from Canada’s frozen lakes.

Also, white pelicans. Creatures altogether different from the brown pelicans on our dock: large, aristocratic and aloof in their white tails. Not like our pelicans, in their grey overalls and with their lunch-bucket beaks.

photo pelican
Pelican at rest. I named this one Cedric, after a character in a one-act play I wrote shortly after Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Greetings from Sanibel

Soon after we arrived on Sanibel Island, a golden retriever came bounding up to greet us, and we became instant friends. Lilly’s owner turned out to be an elderly gentleman, who often stood on the lawn overlooking the bay and tossed tennis balls for the tireless Lilly. Whenever our paths crossed, we greeted our new acquaintance, exchanged a friendly word, spent a moment tousling Lilly’s silky coat.

One day, returning from a run, I saw our new friend puttering in the back of his van. We waved and smiled at each other, as usual, and then he went into his condo, leaving the van open. Inside, I saw a sign: TRUMP – PENCE 2016.

I recoiled. And instantly hated myself for it.

Throughout our time on Sanibel Island, I continued to greet the old gentleman. But, somehow, everything was different. Even Lilly…

The Colonels

Growing up in Park Ex, the political divisions of Greece remained firmly and always in place. My people came from an area adjacent to the region of Mani, which has always been fiercely royalist and conservative — God, King and Country. But we were on the left, and on the losing side, as determined by three men at Yalta. The Greek Civil War, which followed immediately after the Second World War, was in many ways more savage and socially corrosive than the German Occupation. It forever divided families and friends. Men spent years in political prisons. With young families at home, and little money, most of them swallowed their pride and signed a shameful declaration renouncing their past and pledging loyalty to the regime. It was the only way back. No one blamed them.

In Park Ex, each side pretty much stuck to its own. If a right-winger strayed into our social circle, politics were carefully avoided. A wrong word, on the wrong night, could get you a bloody nose.

Sometimes, though, through business or marriage, an alliance might be struck. A tenuous, rickety bridge thrown across the divide. Over time, a kind of respect might take root: a measure of tolerance for the other.

“He voted for So-and-so,” an uncle might say of a new acquaintance. “And his cousin fought alongside So-and-so. But, take my word, he’s alright. Once you get to know him. A real palikári.”

“A fascist, you mean.”

“You’re right,” the uncle might sigh. “But my son married his daughter.”

These divisions are now mostly healed, at least in Canada. The legacy of the Civil War (1946-1949), the Colonels and their brutal junta (1967-1974), the suppression of the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic (1973), and, of course, the ever-resourceful CIA, which served in an “advisory role” to the Colonels (U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew opined that the junta was “the best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in Ancient Athens.”) — all this is in the history books, and unlikely to get you a bloody nose.

In those days, we also listened to Mikis Theodorakis. As a young man during the war, Theodorakis led resistance fighters, and was later imprisoned for his service. He studied composition in Paris, wrote chamber music and symphonies, and won international prizes. He was a prodigiously talented and prolific composer, but on his return to Greece he abandoned all that for popular music — or, music of the people.

I saw him with his orchestra once, at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, in Montreal. The hall was positively packed with wild-eyed Greeks. In the middle of the concert, a man just a couple of rows in front of me, unable to contain himself any longer, leapt to his feet and clutched his head to keep it from exploding. Theodorakis’s songs, especially when sung by Maria Farandouri or Grigoris Bithikotsis, can have that effect.

Among the thousand or so songs Theodorakis wrote, the Mauthausen Trilogy contains his finest. The trilogy is based on lyrics by the Greek poet, Iakovos Kambanellis, who was imprisoned at the Mauthausen concentration camp and fell in love with a Lithuanian Jewish girl. It includes the heartbreaking Song of Songs (Asma Asmaton), and was premiered in Vienna in 1965. Sung in Greek, Hebrew and German, it was hailed as the greatest piece of music ever written about the Holocaust.

Late in life, Theodorakis disgraced himself with anti-Semitic comments.

It’s so hard to be good; much easier to be bad.

All too human

I think this is what I like about pelicans. Like us, they are improbable creatures. Ugly and laughable when earthbound. But, occasionally, when you’re paying attention, they are transcendent in the air. So much to deplore but also much to admire.I leave you with two more pelicany items.

  1. The pelican is featured on the Albanian 1 lek coin.
  2. In 1910 the American poet Dixon Lanier Merritt published this:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.



10 thoughts on “The Pelican”

  1. I love this post, Spyros, how you travel from pelicand to the old man’s sign, to Greek story/history. It also took me back to teaching a grade four class, an a science panel of four fourth-grade ‘experts’ who quizzed the rest of the class. One question was ‘What colour is a brown perican?’


    1. Thanks, Claudia. You hold some kind of record for being first to read and respond. I’m grateful for that. So, did the class respond correctly to the question about the pelican’s colour?


  2. Most informative, entertaining and thought provoking — as always. And so many points of familiarity.
    My parents were very taken with Theodorakis. I think my mum still has an LP. But I didn’t know much about him til now.

    There was a marina in Homosassa, Florida where I spent time watching the pelicans who hung around outside Shelley’s Seafood shop. They cleaned the fish right there and the pelicans, hordes of them, enjoyed the remains. Your description of them is perfect.

    Also in Florida we had dinner with a very smart, articulate, worldly couple who voted for you know who. It’s complicated, or is it?

    According to a Nova program watched tonight, the birds of today (some species) are most likely descendants of dinasor species. So, the pelican can’t help but look a bit odd.

    Where can one read your play about Cedric?


  3. Thanks for this thoughtful response, Alison. Yes, Theodorakis was pretty well known outside Greek circles, especially among progressives. His music was banned in Greece, during the junta, and I recall listening to a 45 RPM record of him singing a song he had just written, while banging out the beat on a table. There were no accompanying instruments, as he was in hiding at the time, somewhere in Athens. It is very complicated, as you say, dealing with people who have different political and social visions. They are not monsters. But it’s hard to understand them, and I can’t say I am able to, at least not yet. Try and listen to the Mauthausen Trilogy (I’ll send you a link privately). Also, yes to birds and dinosaurs. I think that’s the latest science (if you believe in science; sorry, I can’t help myself). And, finally, I’ll send you my one-act play privately.


  4. Another wonderful thing about the pelican is that it is a symbol of Christ’s love for humanity! Whaat! Yes, there is a very old legend ( older than Christianity but integrated into the ” new” religion) that in times of famine the mother pelican pecks at her own breast and feeds the little ones her blood to keep them alive. How would I know this weird thing? When I was guiding the Faberge exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts a few years ago there was a Faberge egg with this bird depicted on it. We had to find out why and thus I learned this bizzare ( and useless?) fact.

    As for the Trump factor….beyond my understanding. The dog is innocent at least.


  5. I was vaguely aware of some Christian lore associated with the pelican, but am please to have it detailed. Actually, I’m more interested in your connection with the Faberge exhibition, which I remember from a long time ago. Never went, however. And, you’re right: Lilly is innocent, but I couldn’t resist the joke.


  6. Hi Spyro,
    I gravitated to your recent blog on The Pelican as it is my favorite bird. Being a snowbird myself I enjoy watching its shenanigans over the lakes and ponds. You described it dive bombing so perfectly……how it ” folds up and plunges with the grace of a boken umbrella”. Loved that image!!!


  7. And when the pelican hunts – they always dive to avoid casting a tell-tale shadow that will alert the fish.


    1. This is a very good fact, and I was unaware of it, as I am unaware of all the really good facts. We will be back there this coming December, and I will monitor the pelican’s behaviour with a more discerning eye, thanks to you. Kisses to K.


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