the range of the great white pelican
Reading Time: 7 minutes Blue is where it lives outside of breeding season. Light green is breeding locations. Dark green is where it resides.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, a Great White Pelican in Ireland found his freedom — again (archive). I loved this story. Who couldn’t empathize with him? Indeed, his attempts to gain freedom seem to have stirred something in his captors, who don’t seem to be in a huge rush to recapture him. Today, Lord Snow Presides over all of us large birds who would rather fly free than stay captured.

pelican ballet
This isn’t a Great White Pelican, but it’s still cool. (Birger Strahl.)

(This week’s 1st-Century Friday topic can be found here.)

Everyone, Meet the Great White Pelican… of Ireland.

As the Font of All Knowledge tells us, Ireland does not naturally contain any Great White Pelicans.

These are huge birds, so that’s probably for the best. They range from 140-180 cm (55-71″) in length, with a wingspan from 226-360 cm (7’5″ – 11’10”) across. Their bills alone measure 28-47 cm (11″-18.5″). Males weigh 9-15 kg (20-33 lb).

And normally, the Great White Pelican lives in Africa and India for the most part.

the range of the great white pelican
Blue is where the Great White Pelican lives outside of breeding season. Light green is where it goes to breed. Dark green is where it resides. (Source. Alexander Kürthy, CC-SA.)

The Great White Pelican is quite a powerful flier. It migrates far to reach its breeding locations, most of which seem to be in Eastern Europe. We don’t know everything about this bird’s migration habits, but we’ve got a good idea of where it likes to hang out. There aren’t that many of them, but they’re not considered endangered.

Notably, Ireland appears nowhere in its itinerary. So if you spot a Great White Pelican anywhere in Ireland, chances are it escaped from a zoo or sanctuary in the area.

A Long Tradition of Captivity for the Pelican.

In 1664, a Russian ambassador donated some Great White Pelicans to King Charles II of England. That gift sparked a tradition. For years now, St. James Park in London has maintained a colony of them. Their website calls the birds “outgoing, sociable creatures.” They also describe one bird as a serial escape artist:

One rather mischievous pelican used to fly over to London Zoo in The Regent’s Park to steal fish for lunch and they will often sit on park benches next to visitors!

That last bit turns out to be important for today’s story, because it seems like zoos in that part of the world don’t clip their pelicans’ feathers super-tightly. The birds can fly at least limited distances. And one of them in Ireland sure does.

So when people spotted a Great White Pelican in Arklow, Ireland, they got really excited. It would have been the very first wild pelican ever sighted in Ireland! As a birdwatching group’s spokesman, Niall Hatch, put it in that Irish Times story:

Birds do unusual things. There is no accounting for what they will do. The closest Great White Pelicans get to us is the Balkan Peninsula. They are capable of flying long distances and are free flying birds, but it would take a lot for one to migrate as far north as this.

But this pelican wasn’t, in fact, a wild traveler from faraway Africa.

He came from much closer by.

Fota Wildlife Park: Cushy Digs for a Bachelor Pelican.

Today’s guest of honor lives at Fota Wildlife Park. It’s near the coast of southern Ireland, close to the city of Cork.

general google map of fota island
Fota Island is close to Cork.

This park is a huge zoo/sanctuary located on Fota Island, just east of Cork. For centuries, the island itself was a private estate. The Smith-Barry family lived there for 800 years. (I gasp in American!) They traced their lineage back to Philip de Barry, who came to Ireland as part of the Norman invasion of the 12th century.

it's quite a strange island
Fota Island in context. The red pin indicates the park itself.

But eventually, the very last Smith-Barry died. University College Cork (UCC) bought the island estate in 1975. A few years later, a zoo director in Dublin suggested turning the island into a wildlife park. In 1983, the dream became a reality.

The folks at this park sure do like their pelicans, too. On that species writeup page, we see that their pelicans are “free roaming.” So they just wander all over the park’s grounds (and often go fishing in the salt waters around the island).

Pelicans have been part of Fota Wildlife Park’s attractions from the very beginning. And thus, they have been a sporadic part of the Irish landscape for decades now.

Flying the Coop.

Indeed, Niall Hatch, that birdwatching spokesman, says that reports of pelicans in Ireland always seem to match up with Fota Wildlife Park:

“There has never been a true wild pelican recorded in Ireland,” he said. “However we have been getting reports of pelicans sporadically for the past three years or so, near the south coast.

“All the previous reports have related to the captive birds at Fota Wildlife Park. These birds are kept there but their wings aren’t always clipped so they can fly freely, which is a little unusual.”

(Is it just me, or does that last bit sound like just a teeny tiny hint of disapproving shade?)

Hatch tells us that in 2018, people found two pelicans in Wexford. You can see it in the below map; it’s south of Arklow. They’d come from Fota Wildlife Park as well. So this park seems to be the nexus for pelican sightings in that part of Ireland.

The pelican we’re talking about today turned up in Arklow, County Wicklow, Ireland. That’s over 200 km (124 mi) away from Fota Island.

how the pelican flew
Our pelican flew quite a ways!

I guess Arklow is far enough away from Cork and Fota Island that people got startled by the sight of a pelican. They began to theorize that the bird was wild — meaning that it’d flown to Ireland from its usual habitat far away. That’d be one heckuva departure from pelicans’ normal migratory habits.

Thankfully, a much more reasonable explanation comes close to hand.

The “Sort of Plan.”

Almost nobody wants to say they’re 100% certain that our star pelican today comes from Fota Wildlife Park. However, Hatch sure thinks so, and their animal care manager, Declan O’Donovan, confirmed that one of the park’s two male pelicans flew the coop recently. He is sure that the Arklow pelican comes from Fota because photographs of him reveal him wearing a blue tag like the one his park uses on its pelicans.

O’Donovan’s description of the escape caught my eye, though, and earned this story a spot in Lord Snow Presides:

“Normally we tend to clip them to keep them within the park. This one just got a bit of flight underneath his wings and was able to pop out. He comes back to us on a regular basis and we feed him.

“He will spend a few days up around Wicklow. He’ll then come back in to Fota, and pop out to the harbour.

“We have a sort of plan in place to catch him when he comes back. It doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, but we will catch him and once we do we’ll clip his feathers and he’ll be back with his buddy.”

Don’t worry, y’all! They “have a sort of plan in place” here. They’re not worried.

I loved that.

The Freedom on Offer.

I just love that Fota Wildlife Park isn’t fazed about this escape. Their boy will have some fun out in the greater world, but he’ll wander back home eventually. He ain’t hurting anybody in the meanwhile.

Pelicans just like to fly. They like to fly good distances. But they’re also highly social birds who like to be in large flocks of other pelicans. So, our bachelor bird won’t be a solo act for too long. And Fota seems to have a good handle on all of that.

Just imagine the reaction if the park’s owners were more authoritarian — and less inclined to work with their animals’ natural behavior.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over sympathy for a runaway pelican just longing to fly free for a little while.

(In addition, think for a moment about the folks in Ireland who wondered if they’d for-sure seen a real live wild pelican in their local park. This pelican wasn’t wild, though. He was just a captive who’d flown his coop temporarily. Occam’s Razor turns out to be accurate — again. See also: Evangelicals’ mangling of the Razor.)

NEXT UP: Speaking of Ireland, an Irish archbishop accidentally reveals the great importance of in-game immersion to the Christians playing his Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game.

1st-Century Friday Topic:

For the next 1st-CENTURY FRIDAY, we’ll be talking about how a string of early Christian liars-for-Jesus turned a 1st-century historian, Thallus, into PROOF YES PROOF that their Savior really existed and that the Gospels’ mythology totes for realsies happened.

As always, nobody is required to do anything. I provide this announcement only for those who want to read up on our sources ahead of time. (Back to the post!)

About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)

Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind: there’s no official topic on these days. I’m just starting us off with something, but consider the sky the limit here. We especially welcome pet pictures!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...