The sun reveals the mountains one by one in shades of smoke and slate and coffee grounds. Then it gets to work on their ancient contours, lighting up the spaces that, just moments ago, were silhouettes against wildfire haze; now they are a quilt of wrinkles and water-worn inscriptions. It’s like slipping on a pair of 3D glasses.
Inches from the front bumper, a great blue heron erupts from the tall grass. His legs dangle like the pendulums of grandfather clocks as prehistoric wings deliver him from the menace of the rental car, already encrusted in an orange desert dust. Above, a carnival of swallows swing in ecstatic circles as the gulls sail by, feigning indifference.
It’s early morning at the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, a desolate collection of wetlands at the base of those holographic mountains, on the western edge of Nevada’s Great Basin, a geological area defined by its undulating mountain ranges and deep, thirsty valleys. In this region, the scant creeks and rivers find no outlet to the sea, but rather are drawn down into hard ground or up into thin air. It is a nation unto itself, settled by legions of sagebrush and phlox.
I came to Nevada to see the twisted bristlecone pines, millennia’s old, on the other side of this big bowl of earth and summer’s breath. To get there, I’m trekking across the desert in a compact car along what is called “America’s Loneliest Highway,” US Route 50. So far, lonely seems to be a misnomer—there’s plenty of life out here, both on and off the road.
I hadn’t intended on stopping at Stillwater, but when I learned that American white pelicans summer in these shallow waters, I scrapped a morning of plans for a detour off-road, deeper into the ochre heart of this unsparing country. My compulsion surprised me—I had seen ebullient trains of pelicans skim saltwater crests, watched them parry over pilings in marinas back east. A migratory pull, I guess that it was, like a secret I didn’t know I was keeping; I felt it crackle to life in the tissue of my peroneus muscle, wrapped tight around bone and exerting its will on the gas pedal below.
* * *
In Egyptian mythology, the pelican goddess Henet opened her mouth like a freight elevator for the worthy deceased, carried them safely to the afterlife. The Nez Perce considered the pelican a medicine bird, and to dream of a pelican was to receive a special kind of spiritual authority. Other tribes believed pelicans controlled the weather, herding storms from one end of the sky to the other.
Things got complicated for the family Pelecanidae when medieval bestiaries forwarded a misperception so evocative, so gruesome, that it was quickly adopted by early Christians.
A pelican “in her piety” depicted the mother bird piercing her breast to feed her own blood to the frantic hatchlings beneath her. Sometimes she did this in the midst of famine, it was said, and sometimes to revive chicks who had been slain by a vengeful father. This gory act became known as “vulning” and served as an easy allegory for the crucifixion. Saint Thomas Aquinas called Jesus the “Pelican of Heaven.” The vulning bird can still be found sown into liturgical robes and carved into alters in churches around the world, in parts of it where pelicans have never even flown.
In 1574, Queen Elizabeth I sat for what became known as the Pelican Portrait, so named for the elaborate brooch that rested upon her costumed chest and featured the colossal bird, snowy wings spread wide like an angel. The painting solidified The Virgin Queen, cherries tucked suggestively behind her ears, as the mother of the Church of England, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for her people.
The imagery found its place too in literature. Lear laments his “pelican daughters” and Keats, in Book I of Endymion, tells us that friendship, art and love nurture men “like a pelican brood.” A whiplash of literary symbolism, but also, an unintended foreshadowing.
* * *
I thought it was strange that I would find pelicans in the desert. To me, maybe to most of us, these are creatures we associate with beach vacations and souvenirs from the junk shops that crowd coastal highways. But pelicans have been congregating in the Great Basin as long as those bristlecone pines have been writhing skyward atop its peaks. In these isolated wetlands, pelicans are relatively safe from predators. Out here, there is lots of space and plenty of food.
A group of American white pelicans is called a squadron, which makes sense when you watch them hunt. A half-moon of white battleships whips up the water using every available extremity, creating a splashy tempest to corral prey into the shallows where it can be scooped up as easily as a handful of dinner mints.
Family-making is a gentler affair. The mother and father pelican build their nest together, raking up soil and detritus with their beaks to drudge wide indentations along sandbars and river banks in which to lay their eggs. Soon, neighborhoods of pocked earth appear, full of other pelicans at the same stage of the breeding cycle, a whole village of expectant parents.
After the first two or three weeks of their lives, the hatchlings will leave the nest to form crèches. These avian play groups enhance the chicks’ safety, as their parents go out in search of food, sometimes flying hundreds of miles to find it.
The unsurprising fact is that, while she may appear to pierce her own body with a red-tipped beak, a mother pelican provides sustenance for her young the old-fashioned way. When she feeds them, she does indeed fold her chin deep into her chest—to facilitate regurgitation. It’s about as miraculous as any kind of parental devotion, which is to say: pretty miraculous after all.
It was Keats who also wrote “beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
* * *
At Stillwater, there are feathers everywhere. Feathers in the women’s bathroom, feathers tangled up in the grass like loose hair in a comb. Feathers fall like snow flurries and dust the gravel lot that gives way to a spongy boardwalk. Interrupting an apocalyptic solitude, an SUV rumbles into the lot, kicking pebbles into the soggy air. A stocky, gray-haired man steps out of the driver’s side door, his olive drab T-shirt fastened tightly into his cargo shorts. Two pairs of binoculars are strapped around his chest like combat gear.
“Mind if I tag along?”
I say that I don’t. He is retired. He is from Sanibel Island, Florida, a place teeming with bright avian life, practically posing around every corner. But here he is in Nevada, he says, yesterday he was in Utah, tomorrow he’s not sure.
I slow my pace to match his, which is measured as he adjusts his equipment. We’re not quite past the picnic shelter, caked in the muddy apartments of cliff swallows, when he brings binoculars to his bushy eyebrows, perched like two unloved paintbrushes atop his forehead.
He lowers his arms.
“Clark’s have more white around the eye—that’s how you can tell,” he says, drawing an imaginary circle around his eye with one finger.
I nod, but he’s at the other end of the binoculars again.
Like all serious birders I’ve been around, he sounds like a teacher calling role, jolting his field glasses from one species to another as soon as he can spit out a name. Extinguishing my wonder with the wet blanket of some Aristotelian urge.
Later I’ll type guesses into Google until I find the birds I saw, learn about their migration habits, the language they speak. For now, it is enough for me to simply be with them.
I slip away into the cordgrass. Further into the kaleidoscopic desert, still empty as a Monday morning sanctuary.
* * *
A pelican is not hard to spot. Pelican bodies are bulky enough to bring down an F-16, as a few did two decades ago in a quiet Iowa cornfield. They can weigh as much as a case of beer and their wingspan is nearly as large as the legendary California condor. No one would count a pelican as a megatick—certainly not a crippler—birding terms that refer to seeing a rare species and the emotional incapacitation that sometimes follows. Nevertheless, pelicans have long been the object of our equivocal gaze.
When Juan Manuel de Ayala charted San Francisco Bay in 1775 he named one of the rocky, bird-covered islands that he found there Isla de los Alcatraces—Island of the Gannets. But Ayala had the wrong bird; the creatures he saw weren’t gannets, they were pelicans. He also had the wrong island; Yerba Buena, the blip of land southeast of Alcatraz, was the pelican haunt he described. The erroneous name remained, but the birds didn’t. By 1850, seabirds had been driven away from the Bay’s three islands as the government transformed them into detainment centers for criminals and immigrants.
* * *
At some point it was the noble pelican who became the delinquent, a nuisance to be dealt with rather than revered: Lear’s moocher incarnate. During the early part of the last decade, for instance, officials at the Idaho Department of Fish & Game grew concerned by declining populations of trout at two state-run reservoirs, ones notable for their popularity with anglers. Despite evidence that poor water quality and habitat loss were behind the drop in numbers, blame fell squarely upon the American white pelican and its appetite.
IDFG developed a plan to “manage” the birds, which turned out to be a very diplomatic way to say “torture” them.
The birds were harassed by aircraft, airboat, and motor boat. They were hunted by humans and dogs, skunks and badgers. Mangled pelican carcasses were left on site to send a grisly message. Cracker shells, guns, and pyrotechnics set off to terrify them; lasers and strobe lights pulsed to disorient them; monofilament lines strung across the river to impede them.
Pelicans, once immortalized in Europe’s finest oil paints, returned to their nests to find eggs doused with cheap vegetable oil, the embryos inside suffocated and still.
These heavy-handed tactics—and similar efforts by catfish farmers in the South and airports around the country—have had little impact on the birds, who return to their colonies despite the hostility, these places that are hardwired into their own soft tissue.
* * *
Stillwater is a parade of bird life, screaming and swirling and diving around me. I brought my camera but there are simply too many places to point it, so I spectate. The pelicans, though, are more reticent, keeping their distance. They are specks on green water, smudges of white and black against a pastel sky.
Just when I think I will need to leave here without the proximity I crave, I see them, four wings beating hard against the heavy air, like sheets snapping on the line to dry.
Intuitively now, I understand the belief that pelicans controlled the weather—it would not surprise me to see these birds towing in a thunderstorm like tug boats.
These two American white pelicans appear indistinguishable from the others I’ve seen. The same, in fact, as three I’d photographed in an Everglades City marina six months earlier. But out here, against the muted colors of the desert sky, they look supernatural, with flint-tipped wings and alabaster bellies.
Soon they are overhead.
In his recent book on urban wildlife, nature writer Gavin Van Horn expresses his own surprise at encountering pelicans as they migrated through his hometown of Chicago. Alone and small in his kayak, he marvels at them, “…at hand and too far away to touch,” knowable and not knowable at all.
They sound like cards shuffling in slow motion, like the static pops of a turntable left spinning. The moment is long. The present instant, which I seem rarely privy to, is loud and rapturous around me and now I know why I came.
* * *
A wonderful bird is the pelican / His bill can hold more than his belican / He can hold in his beak / Enough food for a week / But I’ll be darned if I know how the helican?
This limerick is widely misattributed (to Ogden Nash; it was written by the Tennessee poet Dixon Lanier Merritt), widely misquoted (perhaps you’ve heard it is a marvelous bird, a funny old bird?), and a bit off the mark (pelicans don’t store food in their beaks). But somehow it seems fitting that our long, capricious fascination with these birds be epitomized by fantastical verse.
* * *
A few years ago I was gifted a deck of spirit animal cards—a choose-your-own totem kind of thing—that tells me a pelican that materializes in real life or arrives in a dream brings with it messages of resourcefulness, self-sacrifice and charity. Go figure.
These cards are mere novelties: the crude appropriation of myriad cultures and an amalgamation of tropes, preconceptions, and obvious metaphors. But like all our tired modes of interpretation, these cards assume that when we encounter an animal, it has appeared to us. Today, however, I am certain, that I was the one who appeared, pulled here by a force outside of my comprehension. And though they wouldn’t think to wonder what I might mean to them or what I might symbolize, I understand now that I am here to confer to these pelicans my charity, my clear-eyed adulation.
It is in this sincere moment of offering I can see the pelican for what it is—neither saint, nor monster. Not a poem, emblem, or opponent. Not something that can be named, endlessly parsed into bits of useful symbolism, managed, or murdered. Not a talisman of vitality in a desolate landscape, even.
It is a bird. Only a bird. In all its ordinariness, in all its piety. And only this morning are we together, in this radiant land, as a new-day sun finds us both, bright and revelatory as the truth itself.
Ashley Stimpson is a freelance writer and novice birder based in Baltimore, MD. Her essays and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Longreads, Atlas Obscura, Belt, Johns Hopkins Magazine, and elsewhere. See more of her work at www.ashleystimpson.com.
featured photo The Pelican Portrait, Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1573-75