Notes and Queries Vol. 4 4th S. (96) October 30, 1869, pp. 361-362

Does the pelican feed its young with its blood?

From recent researches it appears that there may be, after all, a substratum of fact underlying what has been hitherto regarded, save by theologians and ecclesiastical decorators, as an almost groundless myth.

Mr. Bartlett, the superintendent of the gardens of the Zoological Society, at the conclusion of an interesting paper (which appears in the first part of the Proceedings of the above society for the present year) upon a peculiar habit of the male horn-bill, viz. the feeding of his incubating mate, during her forced imprisonment, with fruits inclosed in a kind of bag formed by a secretion from the lining of his marital gizzard, proceeds to describe a somewhat similar habit of the flamingo. Some specimens of this bird were kept in the same aviary with the cariamas (a South American stork); and the latter, as is their wont, often turned up their bills and uttered discordant cries. Thereupon the flamingoes, probably on the assumption that hunger was the cause of these utterances, held their heads over the gaping mouths of the storks, and ejected into them a glutinous fluid resembling blood. This was found, on microscopical examination, to contain numerous blood-cells.

"Have we here," says Mr. Bartlett, " an explanation of the old story of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood? I think we have; for the flamingo was, and is still, fond plentifully in the country alluded to; and it may be that, in the translation, the habit of one bird has been transformed to the other. At any rate, I have no doubt that the flamingo feeds its young by disgorging its food, as shown by the bloody secretion that I find ejected by these birds in their endeavours to feed the craving cariamas. This habit has been observed and remarked upon, and has doubtless led to what we have so long considered a fable. I have yet to learn if the same power may not exist in the pelicans, and perhaps in other birds of supplying nutriment to their young by these means."

Sir Thomas Browne, in the course of his observations upon the traditional figure of the pelican (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, book v. chap. i.), with reference to the Egyptian hieroglyphic of this bird—an emblem of folly, by the way, in that it was reputed to take but small care of its eggs—quotes the following from one Pierius:—

"Sed quod pelicanum (ut etiam aliis perisque persuasum est) rostro pectus dissecantem pingunt, ita ut suo sanguine filios alat, ab Ægyptiorum historia valde alienum est, illi enim vulturem tantum id facere tradiderunt."

I am not aware that the vulture has been seen to exercise a habit like that recorded of the flamingo by Mr. Bartlett.

Aristotle's remarks upon pelicans are very brief, and are scattered through his Historia Animalium. He makes no reference to the habit which is the subject of this note.

J.C.Galton, F.L.S.

New University Club.

James Eason