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What is Louisiana’s State Bird? How Was It Decided?

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dalmatian pelican bird on a rock

Pelicans for the win! In addition to the New Orleans basketball team, Louisiana’s obsession with pelicans can be found everywhere from business branding in New Orleans to the peaceful creatures themselves chilling in the Cajun bayou. More specifically, the brown pelican is the state bird of Louisiana. Considered a large bird, it’s bigger than a goose but slightly smaller than its cousin, the American white pelican. 

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The brown pelicans have been the state bird since 1966, but this iconic creature carries deep symbolic meaning revered since long before Louisiana became a state. There was an old legend that claims a mother pelican killed her rebellious baby pelicans, but then slit her throat and fed them her blood on the third day, reviving their little bodies at the cost of her own.

European Catholics had adopted this legend at least since Medieval times, correlating the mother’s self-sacrifice with Christ’s blood on the cross sacrificially shed for everyone. Since most Louisianans have either a Catholic background or extensive knowledge of the religion, they latched onto the pelican as their state symbol. Louisianans say the mother pelican indicates loyalty to their land, especially coupled with their state motto, “Union, Justice, Confidence.”

Pelicans don’t actually feed their flocks their own blood. The myth came from a legend that historians suspect pre-dated Catholicism, but was symbolically adopted by the religion years later.

brown pelican
Image By: Brian Lasenby, Shutterstock

Why Are There White Pelicans on the State Flag?

The American white pelican has appeared on state coins for two hundred years. Starting in 1912, it was featured on the state flag to replace former editions which harkened back to Confederate symbols. The current flag features a mother feeding her young with three drops of her own blood, per the ancient myth.

The three drops of blood were added in 2010 after Joseph Louviere, an eighth grader from Houma, LA, noticed that the flag at the time didn’t include the legendary three drops of blood proposed on the original sketch.

Interestingly enough, the state flag still isn’t quite accurate because it depicts the American white pelican—not the brown pelican which is the actual state bird. The reason for this though is because the white pelican has been featured on the state seal since the early 1800s while the brown pelican didn’t become the state bird until 1966.

australian pelican bird in a river
Image Credit: davodlbnn, Pixabay

How to Spot the Brown Pelican

The brown pelican has a dark brownish gray body with a white neck and yellow head. It has an orange bill that turns yellow during breeding season. Unlike the American white pelican, which visits Louisiana but resides in other states, brown pelicans live in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Louisiana and other places along the southeastern coast.

They sometimes migrate to California during winter and the Northwest or mid-Atlantic coasts during the summer. Brown pelicans have been spotted as far south as Brazil.  

If you’re in a warm coastal area in the southeastern U.S., you might be able to see a brown pelican. Their large bills enable them to eat fish, so look for them in places near water. Pelicans like to nest in the tops of trees or shrubs. They generally have two or three chicks per brood and co-parent their young. After DDT was banned in 1972, the brown pelican population has soared; they are now considered an increasing species.

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Regardless of whether the legend was true, pelicans have inspired bravery and self-sacrifice in Louisianans for generations. This resilient bird of the bayou appears to be the permanent state symbol and is a majestic sight to behold while visiting the Sportsman’s Paradise.

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Featured Image Credit: Efraimstochter, Pixabay

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.