“It’s the first one ever seen in Britain!” Such was the response to a rather special visitor to my university-home county of Cornwall over the past fortnight. If you didn’t know, a Dalmatian pelican Pelecanus crispus realised it had a significant amount of trust fund money after fledging the nest, and rather than settle down with the rest of its kind in the Danube delta, decided to travel the world. This spiritual journey inevitably lead it to Cornwall, where it has been no doubt thrilling the local gulls with its stories of ‘mad nights’ vaping with crows in Poland and why every bird deserves the soul reawakening that can only be found by fishing solo in Germany. Maybe.
It arrived very conveniently in the middle of my university finals, and I almost defied my agnostic-atheist views to pray that it stayed a little longer. To my joy, it did hang on, and at time of writing is still gallivanting around the Land’s End area. I went to see it myself twice last week. The first time we were lucky to be treated to a brief fly-by within seconds of arriving at the spot: like a great white biplane, it soared effortlessly regally among the gulls, drifting South-West towards the coast. A day later, it had set up shop at a local RSPB reserve, and this time we were treated to wonderful views of it sat squat in the centre of an estuary, occasionally preening itself or waddling through the mud like a portly drunkard trying and failing to walk in a straight line for the police. Our best views were obtained from a train station platform, which I’m eternally grateful for the porter granting us permission to use. “Five minutes, then yer’ off before the train gets in” he informed us, with a considerable mustering of authority. By the time we were done however, he was so fascinated we were kept back a good deal longer as we explained the situation to him.
Regardless of its origins or reasons for being here, the bird that is quite happily settled in Cornwall, oblivious to the hordes of cooing twitchers, is far from the first Dalmatian pelican in Britain. In fact, you might call it something of a homecoming. Surprising as it may seem, the Dalmatian pelican is an extinct British native.
Pelican bones have been found from at least 5 sites in the UK, including Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Gloucestershire, and have been radio-carbon dated to sometime between 1,000 BC – 100 AD . Pelican bones found in an Iron Age feasting site were also found to be disarticulated and butchered in a way that suggests these were eaten by peckish estuary-dwelling people . Not surprising when you consider this is the largest species of pelican, and the amount of meat on the bird could see you through a couple of Christmases.
So there you go, a Dalmatian pelican is in Cornwall at the moment, they used to breed here. End of story? But then in this day and age I’ve got to address a particular elephant in the room, especially given my set of interests in conservation: Could we, or rather should we, reintroduce it officially?
Undoubtedly there would be supporters; undoubtedly there would be backlash. The charisma of this bird would be a useful tool in engaging a wider, non-nature orientated audience in conservation were it bought back, much like the success of the crane and great bustard* programmes. Additionally, there is a genuine conservation impetus for restoring this bird across its former range. Certainly, my first memory of learning about the bird was seeing it listed in a children’s book on endangered species as a young child (As a result, I made it a priority species in the dream zoo I ran in my head). Sadly, that status hasn’t changed, and to this day it’s listed as ‘Vulnerable’ within the IUCN red list. Could a UK reintroduction help recoup its numbers?
Problems arise though when we start to think about the current lore of the land. These are birds that would ideally need decent sized wetlands and river deltas in which to lead a sustainable existence. Locations such as the Somerset Levels, Severn Estuary and Norfolk Broads may suffice, but elsewhere there is a very high chance off getting on the wrong side of fish farmers and the angling community. One only has to see the conservation conflicts triggered between over the pelican’s closest UK relative, the cormorant – and that’s before we even get to otters and goosanders. Any reintroduction would have to be done with delicate discussion and clear management plans in place, lest anything worse were to occur if they were simply let out of the back door.
Who knows whether the Dalmatian Pelican will return to Britain – for me personally, the thought of seeing a great flock of these birds making landfall at my local patch of wetland makes me weak at the knees. For now however, it’s a privilege seeing the adventurous individual setting up shop in Cornwall where his kin once fished many moons ago.
“We can let our minds wander back to the misty realms of fifteen hundred years ago, to a wonderful Britain which was alive with bird song from coast to coast, which sheltered wolves, bears and boars in its dark woodlands, cranes in its marshes, bustards on its heaths and beavers by its streams, and we can visualize the great pink pelican sweeping on its huge pinions over the reedy waterways which then penetrated by secret paths into the very heart of what is now Somerset.” (Whitlock, 1953)
- Nikulina, E. A. & Schmölcke, U. (2015) First archaeogenetic results verify the mid-Holocene occurrence of Dalmatian pelican Pelecanus crispus far out of present range. Avian. Biol. 46, 341-355.
- Melrose, R. (2016) Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur: An archaeological and mythological exploration. 1st Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. 99.
* Well, sort of success.