Captured but not criminal – the fascinating Marabou Stork and friends


Pelican in her Piety. Mid 15th-century French manuscript illumination. MMW 10 B 25, f32r. Meermanno Museum, Holland.
Pelican in her Piety. Mid 15th-century French manuscript illumination. MMW 10 B 25, f32r.
Meermanno Museum, Holland.
Recently I’ve been looking at medieval sculptural details and one of the more interesting themes is ‘The Pelican in her Piety’. When food was scarce the female pelican was thought to peck her own breast until it bled in order to feed blood to her young. This Christian imagery of ‘The Pelican in her Piety’ would have been a familiar symbol across medieval Europe representing the self-sacrifice of Christ’s Passion.

It is intriguing to examine fifteenth-century English interpretations depicting pelicans despite these birds not being found naturally in the British Isles. The above sculptural representations of this theme can be seen in the Church of St Peter and St Paul in the South Norfolk village of East Harling. Searching out local, regional work is one of the pleasures of investigating the creative skills and imagination of the medieval artisan.

It is also thought-provoking to consider the dispersal and then acceptance of new ideas and symbols such as the pious pelican. Perhaps one route of transmission occurred through illuminated books. All kinds of real and imaginary combinations decorate their pages. This intriguing image of an ape riding a crane is from a fourteenth-century Flemish Psalter.

ape riding a crane
Ape riding a crane.
MS Douce 5 – f211v
Flemish Psalter probably from Ghent. c1320-30.
Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Of course, monks working away illuminating manuscripts in a medieval scriptorium in Europe may have seen a crane or a stork or even a pelican in the wild, but ever since the Ancient Egyptians there is evidence of humans capturing and keeping birds in cages. Nowadays, more often than not it is the rare and endangered birds that are kept not in cages, but in wildlife sanctuaries in attempts to save their species.

These birds – storks, cranes (members of the Great Crane Project) and ibises form part of a collection at the Pensthorpe Natural Park in North Norfolk. Sadly though there are no pelicans not even the Dalmatian Pelican whose current status is listed as vulnerable.

Reading round the bird forums on the Internet I saw somebody describe these stunning birds as ‘deeply ugly’, surely not! I agree they are, along with herons, not tiny, sweet and cuddly, but to me they appear, with a little visual imagination, to have flown in from the Cretaceous Period. They bring with them a hint of early Earth drama with their pterodactyl-like appearance.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

11 thoughts on “Captured but not criminal – the fascinating Marabou Stork and friends”

  1. I love their looks. No bird is really sweet and cuddly even if it may look that way – they are tough and they need to be to survive. I think these birds you have spotlighted have personality plus.

    1. Yes – you’re so right, birds/nature none of it is really cute and cuddly, it’s all about survival. In my soppy human way I felt sorry for the storks they looked frozen.

      1. I bet they were thinking stork thoughts and probably perfectly ok but I think it’s human of us to anthropomorphize, right? And in some way it makes a connection with animals?

        Bird scarves in the future?

  2. Is the pious pelican a real thing or just a myth? Although I’m far from a bird watcher I am fascinated by their comings and goings around our neighbourhood pond. It’s easy to see why ancient cultures would have built up stories around these fascinating creatures. Some great photos especially the black heron.

    1. Well, I’m no ornithologist, but as far as I could read it is a myth. However, you do wonder how such a myth started. Photos were easy – they were stunned into immobility by the cold weather!

  3. A beautiful and thoughtful post Agnes, and I love your examples from the illuminated manuscripts and Church carvings.
    Marabou storks were a favourite of mine in South Africa; lovely pics, brought back memories of living in Norfolk.

    1. Thank you. Oh you are so lucky to have seen Marabou storks in their natural environment. It was great to see these amazing birds up close, but I did feel uncomfortable knowing they were captive even though it was a well-run wildlife park and not a small cage. Somehow you just want to see birds flying free.

  4. For a moment I was transported back to the cloistered surrounds of a monk working on an illustrated manuscript – I wonder whether they could only work in certain light to bring the true vibrancy to life? And pelicans – well, we have them in abundance but I couldn’t ever remember seeing one in the UK, so I was wondering about that too until you covered it off. Ibises we also have more of than we need, almost feral in the city now, but not the version in your photo. According to Wikipedia, the Australian White Ibis, is of “least concern” in threatened species rankings, and I can second that!

    1. You know, I don’t envy you your spider population, but I really do envy you your birds. I can’t imagine how great it must be to have ibises in the city – considerably more stunning that a boring old pigeon. And, as for the glorious pelicans we don’t have them here, nearest bird probably the heron, but even living in the vicinity of the Broads you’re lucky to see them. However, a large pond stocked with plenty of goldfish will certainly attract them into your back garden for a dawn raid!!

      1. To be honest, out of their “proper” environment, the ibises have become an urban pest, but I could watch pelicans all day long. Just not from directly under a telegraph pole if you get my drift :-). Sometimes they fly past our (5th floor) lounge-room window in v-formation! Like a lumbering Airbus. We have a number of herons, waterfowl and assorted coots all around us, as we are on a links golf course with a waterway running through it. And the other day, my back balcony was visited by a kookaburra. I took some blurry photos on my new phone but don’t know how to download them yet. I think he liked the high vantage point for spotting lizards. I suspect he has grabbed the opportunity created by the disappearance of our lorrikeets, which in turn, I suspect has been caused by the gardener severely pruning the garden. I guess he expected the plants would be re-budding as spring is just around the corner, but no sign of new growth yet, and I miss the chattering of those noisy parrots.

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