Pelicans and disabled cranes

The English diarist John Evelyn records a visit he made to James’ Park in London on 9th February 1665 where he saw many birds. One was a pelican, a gift from the Russian ambassador to London:

“I examin’d the Throate of the Onocratylus or Pelecan, the tongue scarce appearing, the [B]eake above 2 foote long, crooked at the very point & a little red at the tip: the neck rough, a fowle betweene a Storke & Swan & neere as big as a Swan; a Melancholy water foule: brought from Astracan by the Russian Ambassador: it was diverting to see how he would tosse up & turne a flat-fish, plaice or flounder to get it right into its gullet, for it has one at the lower beake which being filmy stretches to a prodigious widenesse when it devours a greate fish &c:”

There are still pelicans in St James’ Park. It’s illegal to touch them; a British law, The Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations 1997, specifies that it is forbidden to “feed or touch any deer or pelican” (clause 24) — unless you have written permission from the Secretary of State (currently Priti Patel). One of the pelicans escaped in 1663, and was lost. The scientist and essay-writer Sir Thomas Browne had a stuffed pelican, which he was very proud of, that had been shot on Horsey Fen, Norfolk, in May of that year. He remarked that it was “a fowle which none could remember upon this coast”, which suggests the fugitive pelican come to an unfortunate end.

Another curiosity in 1665 was a crane with a wooden leg:

“2 Balearian Cranes, one of which having had one of his leggs broken and cut off above the knee, had a wodden or boxen leg & thigh with a joynt for the <knee> so accurately made, that the poore creature could walk with it, & use it as well as if it had ben natural: It was made by a souldier.”

Animals still get false limbs, but times have changed since 1665. In 2018, a rare Welsh Harlequin duck in North America lost a leg in an attack by a weasel. His owner had a friend make a new leg, using their 3D printer. ‘Stumpy’ now stumps happily around his home in White Creek.

Find out more about this:

John Evelyn’s diary

Stumpy the duck

Sir Thomas Browne’s pelican: Notes on Certain Birds and Fishes Found in Norfolk, Sir Thomas Browne, 1674


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