What Does the Pelican Symbolize? Exploring the Meaning Behind this Bird

Pelicans are fascinating creatures, unique in their behavior and appearance. Their long beaks and large throat pouches make them instantly recognizable, but what do they really symbolize? For centuries, pelicans have been associated with a range of meanings and values, from motherly love and sacrifice to wealth and abundance.

In ancient times, pelicans were viewed as symbols of self-sacrifice and compassion. Legend has it that when food was scarce, a mother pelican would pierce her own breast with her beak to feed her young with her own blood. This powerful act of love and sacrifice has made the pelican a popular symbol in many cultures, reflecting the importance of nurturing and giving.

In addition to their symbolic associations with motherly love and compassion, pelicans have also been associated with wealth and abundance. With their large beaks and throat pouches, pelicans are excellent hunters, capable of catching fish in large quantities. In many cultures, pelicans are seen as symbols of prosperity and good fortune, representing the abundance of the natural world and the rewards of hard work and dedication.

The Pelican as a Christian Symbol

The pelican has been a cherished symbol in Christianity for centuries. It is commonly associated with self-sacrifice and compassion, mirroring the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind.

The image of a pelican feeding her young has been a popular symbol used in Christian art and literature. This stems from the belief that the pelican would pierce its own breast to provide food for its offspring if no other sources were available. This act of selflessness is often compared to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, giving himself for the redemption of humanity.

The pelican is also commonly used as a symbol for the Eucharist, which is the Christian sacrament representing the body and blood of Christ. This is because of the similarity between the pelican’s act of feeding her young with her own flesh and the idea of Christ offering his own body as nourishment for his followers.

Symbolic Meanings of the Pelican in Christianity

  • Self-sacrifice
  • Compassion
  • Redemption
  • The Eucharist

The Pelican in Christian Art and Literature

Throughout history, artists and writers have used the pelican as a symbol for various Christian themes and ideas. Pelican imagery can be found in many cathedrals, churches, and religious texts, including the Bible. One of the most famous examples of this is in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” where the pelican is used as a metaphor for Christ’s sacrifice.

In Christian art, the image of a pelican feeding her young is often depicted in stained glass windows, paintings, and sculptures. The bird is usually shown with her wings spread wide, her beak piercing her breast, while her young gather around her. This image is intended to evoke feelings of sacrifice, love, and devotion.

The Pelican in Christian Heraldry

The pelican has been used as a symbol in Christian heraldry since medieval times. It is often depicted with her wings displayed and her beak open, representing the pelican’s act of feeding her young. The bird is often featured on coats of arms for religious orders and institutions, as well as on family crests for those with Christian beliefs.

Heraldic NameDescription
Pelican in her PietyA pelican piercing her own breast to feed her young
Pelican in her NestA pelican feeding her young, with no self-piercing depicted
Pelican Vulning HerselfA pelican with wings displayed and her breast open, without feeding chicks depicted

These heraldic symbols serve as a visual representation of the Christian values of sacrifice and love. They continue to be used to this day, reflecting the lasting impact of the pelican as a symbol of faith and devotion.

The Pelican in Mythology

The pelican is a bird that has been revered throughout the ages for its unique physical traits and behaviors. In many ancient cultures, the pelican was seen as a sacred and mystical creature, with various symbolic meanings attached to it. Here, we will explore the significance of the pelican in mythology.

  • Egyptian mythology: In ancient Egyptian mythology, the pelican was closely associated with the goddess Isis. As a symbol of motherhood and nurturing, the pelican was believed to have the ability to bring the dead back to life by feeding them with its own blood.
  • Christianity: In Christian iconography, the pelican is often depicted as a symbol of sacrificial love. This imagery stems from the belief that pelicans would selflessly pierce their own chests to feed their young with their blood, even in times of famine.
  • Chinese mythology: In ancient Chinese mythology, the pelican was believed to be a symbol of peace and prosperity. It was said that the pelican was able to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits, causing many people to keep pelicans as pets.

These are just a few examples of the many different ways the pelican has been revered and symbolic in mythology. Its unique physical traits and behaviors have earned it a special place in the hearts and minds of people throughout history.

The Pelican as a National Symbol

For many cultures throughout history, the pelican has been a symbol of selflessness and sacrifice. This symbolism has made the pelican a popular national symbol for a number of countries, including:

  • The Republic of Albania
  • The Federated States of Micronesia
  • The Republic of Moldova

Let’s take a look at how each of these countries has incorporated the pelican into their national symbols:


In the Albanian national emblem, the pelican is shown tearing open its own breast to feed its young with its own blood. This depiction of the pelican is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and selflessness, and represents the Albanian people’s willingness to fight for their country and their families.


The Federated States of Micronesia incorporated the pelican into its national emblem as a symbol of the country’s abundance and prosperity. The pelican is depicted with three fish in its beak, representing the country’s three main island groups.


In the Moldovan coat of arms, the pelican is shown feeding its young with its own blood. This symbolizes the country’s willingness to make sacrifices in order to ensure the welfare and prosperity of its people. The pelican is also surrounded by a vineyard, which represents Moldova’s agricultural and winemaking heritage.

The pelican is a powerful symbol of selflessness and sacrifice that has been used in national symbols across the world. Whether it’s tearing open its own breast to feed its young or providing for its family with fish from the sea, the pelican represents the virtues that many countries strive to embody.

The Pelican as a Heraldic Symbol

Since ancient times, the symbolism of animals has been used to represent various qualities or values. The pelican is no different in this regard. In heraldry, the pelican has been used to represent a variety of meanings, depending on the context.

  • Selflessness – One of the most famous meanings associated with the pelican is selflessness. In medieval bestiaries, it was believed that pelicans would feed their young with their own blood if other sources of food were scarce. This self-sacrificing behavior made the pelican a popular symbol for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
  • Protection – Pelicans are also known for their protective nature towards their young. In heraldry, the pelican is often shown with its wings open wide, a pose that suggests protection and shelter.
  • Abundance – Pelicans have large beaks that can hold a significant amount of fish. Because of this, the pelican can also symbolize abundance and plenty.

It’s important to note that the meaning of the pelican as a symbol is not always clear-cut. In some depictions, the pelican may have several meanings at once, making interpretation more challenging.

Here is a table of examples to illustrate the different ways the pelican has been used as a heraldic symbol:

SelflessnessThe pelican “in her piety” depicted feeding her young with her blood, as seen in the coat of arms of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, England.
ProtectionThe Pelican vulning (with drops of blood) is a symbol of protection of the Eucharist, as seen in the coat of arms of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, USA.
AbundanceThe pelican with her brood, that embodies abundance, as seen in the coat of arms of Saint-Pierre-ès-Liens Church, Cohade, France.

Overall, the pelican remains an important symbol in heraldry, representing a range of virtues and values that are still relevant today.

The Pelican in Literature

Literature has always been fascinated with symbols, and the pelican has been a popular one. In many works, the pelican is used as a symbol of sacrifice, devotion, and love. Here, we take a closer look at some of the most notable examples of the pelican in literature.

The Pelican in Literature: Notable Examples

  • In “The Romance of the Rose,” a medieval French poem, the pelican was used as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. According to the legend, a mother pelican would feed her young with her own blood when food was scarce, and for this reason, the pelican became a symbol of Christ’s own sacrifice.
  • William Shakespeare also used the pelican as a symbol of sacrifice in his play “Hamlet.” In one scene, Hamlet describes his father as being “sealed in a bath of heated gold” and compares him to a pelican that “pierces her own breast” to feed her young.
  • The pelican is also a recurring symbol in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. In one poem, she describes the bird as having a “daring look” and being “familiar with the sky.” The pelican, she suggests, is an embodiment of the poet herself, “flying in the face of convention” and daring to be different.

The Pelican in Literature: Common Themes

While the pelican is used in a variety of ways in literature, it is most often associated with the themes of sacrifice and devotion. Whether it is Christ sacrificing himself for humanity, a parent pelican sacrificing itself for its young, or a poet who sacrifices conformity for the sake of her art, the pelican is a powerful symbol of the lengths we will go for those we love.

Another common theme associated with the pelican is rebirth. The pelican has long been associated with the color white, which is often associated with purity, innocence, and new beginnings. In this way, the pelican can be seen as a symbol of hope and renewal, even in the face of suffering and sacrifice.

Sacrifice“The Romance of the Rose,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
Devotion“The Romance of the Rose,” parent pelicans
RebirthWhite pelicans, purity

Overall, the pelican is a powerful symbol with a rich history in literature. Whether it is used to represent sacrifice, devotion, or rebirth, the image of this magnificent bird has the power to move and inspire readers of all ages.

The Pelican in Art

The pelican has been a symbol in art for centuries, and it has been depicted in various forms and mediums, from medieval illuminated manuscripts to contemporary paintings. Its representation in art is often associated with religious symbolism, nature, and mythology.

6. The Pelican in Art

Throughout the history of art, the pelican has been depicted in various ways, ranging from realistic to symbolic representations. Here are some notable examples:

  • Medieval illuminated manuscripts often depict the pelican as a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection. The bird was believed to pierce its own breast to feed its young with its own blood, and this act was seen as a representation of Christ’s sacrifice.
  • During the Renaissance, the pelican became a popular subject in European art, especially in religious paintings. In these artworks, the pelican was often depicted with its wings outstretched, symbolizing Christ’s embrace of humanity.
  • The pelican has also been a recurring theme in contemporary art, appearing in paintings, sculptures, and installations. Some artists depict the pelican as a symbol of environmental conservation, drawing attention to the bird’s vulnerable status in the wild.


Albrecht DürerPelicanA woodcut print of a pelican with its young, symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice
Jacques de Gheyn IIThe Pelican in Her PietyA painting depicting a pelican pecking its breast to feed its young, a classic Christian symbol
Nicola HicksPelicanA bronze sculpture of a pelican, highlighting the bird’s grace and movement

Whether as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice or a representation of environmental conservation, the pelican continues to be a source of inspiration for artists across the ages.

The Pelican as an Endangered Species

For centuries, the pelican has been associated with self-sacrifice and compassion. But despite this revered position, the pelican is facing a difficult time from human activities like oil spills and habitat loss. In this article, we examine the state of the pelican as an endangered species, and what we can do to preserve this magnificent bird.

The Numbers

  • The pelican is listed as endangered in some areas and threatened in others, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
  • There are eight species of pelicans found throughout the world. Of these, four species are listed as least concern, two are near threatened, one is vulnerable, and one is endangered.
  • The primary threats to pelicans include habitat loss, oil spills, and human encroachment on breeding and feeding areas.
  • In some countries, like India and China, pelicans are also hunted for their feathers, meat, and bones, which are used in traditional medicine.
  • The Brown Pelican, found in the Gulf of Mexico, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of oil spills. For example, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the pelican population in the Gulf was decimated.
  • In 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was removing the Brown Pelican from the endangered species list. However, conservationists remain concerned about the bird’s long-term prospects.
  • Overall, the pelican population has declined by over 30% in the last three generations, according to the IUCN.

Factors Contributing to the Decline of Pelican

The primary factors contributing to the decline of the pelican population include habitat loss, oil spills, and human encroachment on breeding and feeding areas. Pelicans rely on coastal wetlands, estuaries, lagoons and mangrove islands for survival. These areas are becoming less viable due to draining, commercial development and traffic on the waters.

As for oil spills, whenever a spill occurs, it has disastrous and long-lasting effects on not only the pelican but also other wildlife. Even the smallest oil spill can destroy the delicate ecosystem of a coastal wetland. Ingested oil can cause immediate death of the birds. It can damage their feathers’ insulation, make it hard for them to fly and also hinder their ability to float on water.

LocationDateNumber of Pelicans Affected
São Paulo, BrazilJanuary 2015More than 500
Trinidad and TobagoDecember 2013More than 200
Marathon, Florida, USJune 2010More than 50

Furthermore, human occupation of their habitats has been a significant contributor to their decline. Their wetland habitats have been exploited to meet human demands for seafood, irrigation, and other land uses. Many of the wetlands have been drained to make way for other activities hence leaving them without a breeding and feeding ground leading to death by starvation.

In conclusion, protecting pelicans from extinction will require concerted efforts. Essential actions that will help preserve the species include protecting its habitat, reducing the destructive effects of oil spills, and implementing policy measures that promote conservation of wetlands habitat. Without such measures, the plight of pelicans will worsen with time and eventually lead to their extinction.

The Pelican as a Fisherman

Among the many symbols that the pelican represents, one of the most prominent is its role as a fisherman. Pelicans have developed a specialized method of catching fish that is both effective and unique. In this section, we will delve deeper into the pelican’s fishing technique.

  • Pelicans are known for their incredible eyesight, which allows them to spot fish from high above the water. They can detect the slightest movement of fish from great heights, which helps them determine the optimal spot to catch their prey.
  • Once they’ve located a school of fish, pelicans will fly down low over the water and use their keen sense of timing to catch the fish off guard.
  • Using their large bills as nets, pelicans scoop up fish by the dozen. Their expandable throat pouches allow them to carry as much as four times their stomach capacity, which comes in handy when food is scarce.

The pelican’s fishing skills have not gone unnoticed by humans. In fact, fishermen have been known to follow pelicans to find schools of fish and get a better catch.

Here is a table that summarizes some interesting facts about the pelican’s fishing abilities:

EyesightPelicans have excellent eyesight, which allows them to spot fish from high above the water.
TimingPelicans use their sense of timing to catch fish off guard.
BillsPelicans use their bills to scoop up fish.
Throat PouchPelicans’ expandable throat pouches allow them to carry more fish at once.

Overall, the pelican’s fishing skills are a testament to its adaptability and resourcefulness. These traits have allowed it to thrive in various environments throughout the world, and make it a symbol of resilience and strength.

The Pelican as a Bird of Prey

When most people think of birds of prey, they picture eagles, hawks, and owls. However, the pelican is also considered a bird of prey, although it may not fit the stereotype of a fierce hunter. Pelicans are known for their unique appearance and behaviors, but what exactly makes them a bird of prey?

  • Pelicans are carnivorous: The main diet of pelicans consists of fish, which they catch by diving into the water from the air. They are opportunistic feeders and will eat whatever fish is most abundant in their habitat.
  • Pelicans have sharp bills: Although they may not have the sharp talons of an eagle or hawk, pelicans have a strong, sharp bill that they use to catch and hold onto fish. The bottom portion of their bill has a pouch that can hold up to three gallons of water, which they use to scoop up fish.
  • Pelicans hunt cooperatively: Pelicans often hunt in groups, herding schools of fish towards shallow water where they can be easily caught. This requires coordination and communication between the birds, much like how wolves hunt in packs.

Despite their non-traditional image as a bird of prey, pelicans share many of the characteristics that define this group of animals. They are fierce hunters with specialized adaptations that allow them to catch and consume their prey, and they play an important role in maintaining the balance of their ecosystem.

So the next time you see a pelican gracefully soaring over the water, remember that beneath its gentle demeanor lies the heart of a true bird of prey.

The Pelican and its Unique Physical Characteristics

The pelican, with its unique physical characteristics, is an intriguing bird of the avian world. Here, we will take a closer look at what makes the pelican so distinct, and what it symbolizes.

10. Physical Characteristics of the Pelican

  • The pelican has an oversized bill that is adapted for catching and holding fish. This bill can hold up to three times more than the bird’s stomach can.
  • Pelicans have webbed feet that are used for swimming and diving for fish.
  • They have a large throat pouch that is used for catching and storing fish while swimming.
  • The pelican’s wingspan can reach up to 10 feet, making it one of the largest wingspans of any bird.
  • They have a waterproof coat of feathers that allows them to remain buoyant while swimming.
  • Their eyes are protected by a third eyelid, which allows them to see clearly while underwater.
  • Pelicans are exquisite divers and can dive from heights of up to 60 feet when hunting for fish.
  • They can fly for long periods without flapping their wings thanks to their air sacs that help them remain buoyant in the air.
  • Pelicans have a unique feather structure that helps them regulate their body temperature, which allows them to remain cool in hot temperatures.
  • These birds have strong, sturdy legs that allow them to stand for long periods on tree branches or on the ground.

Symbolism of the Pelican

Due to its unique physical characteristics, the pelican has become a symbol of many things throughout human history. In ancient mythology, the pelican was a symbol of motherhood and self-sacrifice. The bird was said to pierce its own breast to feed its young with its own blood, which was seen as a symbol of maternal love.

Today, the pelican is a symbol of generosity, altruism, and nourishment. Its unique bill is seen as a representation of holding and providing nourishment. The pelican is also a symbol of community and sharing, as they often hunt and fish in groups, sharing their bounty with each other.

Motherhood and Self-SacrificeMaternal love and dedication
Generosity and AltruismWillingness to provide for others
Community and SharingWorking together and sharing resources

The pelican is a remarkable bird, both in its physical characteristics and its symbolism. Whether you see it as a representation of motherhood, community, or nourishment, there is no denying the unique and awe-inspiring qualities of this avian wonder.

FAQs About What Does The Pelican Symbolize

1. What does the pelican symbolize in Christianity?

The pelican is a symbol of self-sacrifice and devotion in Christianity. According to legend, mother pelicans would peck at their own flesh to feed their young with their blood, which represented Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.

2. What does the pelican symbolize in heraldry?

The pelican is a symbol of generosity and selflessness in heraldry. The pelican is depicted with its beak on its chest, which is believed to represent the bird’s willingness to sacrifice itself for its offspring.

3. What does the pelican symbolize in Native American culture?

The pelican is a symbol of grace, beauty, and renewal in Native American cultures. Some tribes believe that the bird’s long beak represents the connection between the earth and the sky.

4. What does the pelican symbolize in Ancient Egypt?

In Ancient Egyptian culture, the pelican was often associated with the goddess Isis, who was considered to be the mother of all life. The bird was seen as a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings.

5. What does the pelican symbolize in art?

In art, the pelican is often depicted as a symbol of motherhood, nurturing, and sacrifice. It is also used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christian art.

6. What does the pelican’s color symbolize?

The color of the pelican can vary depending on the species, but it is often associated with purity and cleanliness. The bird’s white color is seen as a symbol of spiritual growth, while its black color can represent the darkness that is necessary for new beginnings.

7. What does it mean if you see a pelican in your dream?

If you see a pelican in your dream, it may symbolize selflessness, generosity, and sacrifice. It can also represent the need to take care of your loved ones and to put their needs before your own.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, the pelican is a symbol of selflessness, sacrifice, and nurturing in many cultures and religions around the world. Whether you see the bird in art, in nature, or in your dreams, it is a reminder to act with generosity and kindness towards others. We hope that this article has helped to shed some light on what the pelican symbolizes. Thank you for reading, and we invite you to come back for more interesting articles in the future.