It might seem unlikely to find pelicans in the middle of London, but St James’s Park has had resident pelicans for more than 350 years.
St. James’s is a large bit of greenery that fronts Buckingham Palace. It has a lake that runs through the middle of it and is home to many varieties of waterfowl. But among the ducks geese, and swans, there are some very large, unusual, white birds that may look rather out of place. They are pelicans and St. James’s Park has had resident pelicans for more than 350 years.
Pelicans in the Park
It all started in 1664 when the Russian ambassador sent King Charles II a few pelicans to grace his newly remodeled park. Ever since, a small pelican flock has resided there. But it seems that small flocks don’t tend to produce fertile eggs, so newcomers have to be added occasionally. Over the years, pelicans have arrived from other countries, either as gifts or purchases.
The park likes to limit the number of pelicans because if there are too many of them they tend to misbehave. Although they’re friendly to human visitors, they have been known to gobble up smaller birds – mostly pigeons. In 1981 two of the St. James’s Park pelicans were banished to the London Zoo because they were swallowing down too many pigeons.
People throwing bread to the birds were actually causing the problem. Pelicans don’t eat bread – but pigeons do. While the little birds were enjoying the snack, they were too preoccupied to notice the big bill that was about to scoop them up. The pelicans thought the pigeons were their snack and would swallow them whole. However, the public didn’t like watching the little birds being devoured and complained.
A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican (1910)
Limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt
Pelicans and Politics
Russia supplied the first pelicans in the park and continued to resupply pelicans for many years. The story goes that in the 1960s a new American ambassador was visiting the Foreign Secretary. He looked out the window at St. James’s Park and saw the pelicans. When he asked about this odd site, he was told the story of the birds coming from Russia all those years ago and the ongoing tradition of Russian pelicans in the park.
The United States was in the middle of the cold war with Russia and couldn’t be outdone by them. So, the US also made a donation of pelicans to St. James’s Park. But no sooner had the American birds arrived than they seemed unhappy and became sickly. The Americans accused the Russian of harming the birds and Russia denied it. This supplied the two countries with another point of contention.
This sick pelican mystery was finally solved when it was discovered that the Americans had sent the wrong kind of pelican. They had sent brown pelicans which are a saltwater species and they just weren’t happy on a lake. The Americans took back their brown pelicans and sent in some white ones which were better suited to lake life. The new American pelicans settled in with their Russian comrades and lived together in peace.
Currently there are three pelicans living in St. James’s Park: Gargi, Tiffany, and Isla. Gargi is the oldest of the three, coming to the park in 1996. One day, a gentleman called Mr. Soloman, in Southend, stepped out into his garden to find the giant white bird who had somehow chosen his property as a landing pad. The pelican was friendly and stayed on. He became a family pet and was named Gargi. Mr. Soloman found the bird a bit too expensive to keep and asked the Royal Parks to take him. Gargi has lived at St. James’s Park ever since.
Since Gargi is technically a wild bird, his wings have never been clipped like the others, and he is free to go whenever he likes. He has been known to have his regular dinner at St. James’s Park and then fly over to the London Zoo to enjoy another feeding time.
Tiffany and Isla, the other two St. James’s pelicans, arrived at the park in 1993 from Prague and were financed by the Tiffany Foundation. So Tiffany is named after the generous donor. Isla was named by public vote. The ballot contained six choices, and Isla (which is also the name of the then pelican caretaker’s daughter) was the favorite.
See the Pelicans
You can see the pelicans daily at St. James’s Park. If you want an up close view, go at their feeding time which is between 2.30 and 3.00 near Duck Island Cottage. It’s not far from the entrance off Horse Guards Road. The pelicans are fed a diet of fish by the wildlife officer, and they supplement that by catching fish from the lake, occasionally downing a pigeon, or in Gargi’s case, flying off to the zoo for a snack.
And Now There Are Six
Update 4 March 2020:
On my recent visit, I was surprised to spot six pelicans instead of the usual three. I learned that three youngsters had arrived from Prague in May 2019. The two males are called Sun and Moon, and the female is called Star. They were introduced to Gargi, Tiffany and Isla in July and now share the lake with them.
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